There are three things I could never understand: string theory, the rules of baseball, and why it is so hard to bake a decent loaf of bread. This seems to be a skill that comes naturally to all you DIY folk. I know what you’re thinking, you self-sustainable people, you; practice makes perfect, stop your whining! But I already know I would be woefully inadequate at things you’re all so good at, mysterious and wondrous things like raising chickens and composting and operating machinery that could potentially lop off a limb. But one thing I am good at is cooking. I am a cook by vocation, but I also cook for the sheer enjoyment it brings, which makes my inability to get a lump of dough to rise and transform into something delicious all the more frustrating.
Like millions of others who found themselves housebound and desperate for a meaningful, productive outlet to fill the quarantine days, I decided to try my hand at home-baked bread. I ordered my flours and yeast and read all I could on proofing and making a sourdough starter. I gathered recipes from some trustworthy blogs, donned my apron, and jumped in. After a full day of mixing, punching, proofing, and proofing some more, I sent my first hopeful loaf into the oven to become a thing of beauty. It came out an amorphous blob of inedible sadness and went straight into the garbage. This scenario repeated itself for many days, with the results being either soggy, gummy, burnt, or an unfathomable combination of all three.
After my long days of fruitless efforts, I did what I always do when I am feeling bad about myself: turn to social media for a quick reminder of why my life is so empty compared to everyone else’s. It was no surprise to see scroll after scroll of scrumptious lockdown creations: cookies and pies, tarts and quick breads, with compliments and hearts abounding in the comments below. It was but a small consolation to me that no one had endeavored to make yeasted breads, which vindicated me ever so slightly, and I was just about to shut my computer off when I came upon a post from my brother’s wife, Tina. I knew Tina was an excellent cook, fearless and adventurous, but this post elevated her to savant status: there, in a magnificent display of baking savvy, were a dozen golden brown, plump and crusty bagels. That she had made. In their tiny Manhattan kitchen. My finger hesitated over the “heart” icon, but I scrolled past. The further on I went, the more posts of hers I had to stop to ogle. Astonishing sourdoughs with perfect crusts just waiting to be slathered with butter. Babkas, filled to overflowing with chocolate and cinnamon swirls. There were glorious shots of ciabattas, epis, brioche, focaccias! Some were sliced open and arranged to reveal their perfectly formed air pockets. My mouth watered as my ego deflated and my pride suffered a mortal wounding. I closed my computer without so much as a “thumbs up.” Such was my utter defeat.
I usually wake up quite refreshed after a night of sulking and self recrimination, but the following morning I practically leaped out of bed with an invigorated sense of purpose. I rushed to my computer to replenish my supplies (and paid for premium next day shipping!) and set out, once again, to prove to the world that I too could make a loaf of bread. By the following evening my garbage can was overflowing with inedible disasters, and I was back online. Some might say spending hundreds of dollars just to prove a point might be a tad excessive, but I was determined. This next effort would yield that elusive, perfect loaf.
And so I began from the top, mixing, pounding, proofing, baking, cursing and cursing, prompting my family to seek safety behind bedroom doors. Sometime around midnight, my husband Max came downstairs to find me crouched on the floor in front of the oven. He shot me an inquisitive look, but I put my finger to my lips, and in the next moment the timer went off. Donning my oven mitts, I ever so carefully cradled the loaf pan, and set it to cool on the rack. There it was at last, my perfect bread, my magnum opus, a thing of absolute beauty. We waited until it had cooled sufficiently, my ever patient husband and I, and at exactly 1:45 in the morning, we buttered our very first slices of still warm farmhouse bread. We devoured half the loaf. Yes, I had done it. I’d proven myself a DIY-er at last, capable of mysterious and wondrous things. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even raise some chickens.
There, in a magnificent display of baking savvy, were a dozen golden brown, plump and crusty bagels. That she had made. In their tiny Manhattan kitchen. My finger hesitated over the “heart” icon, but I scrolled past.