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copyright ©1999-2003

the lost art of baking bread 
by Kelly Beachell 
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I never knew what real bread tasted like until I received a homemade loaf as payment for baby-sitting my neighbor's daughter. The investment of her busy-mom's time was worth more than the money she could have paid me, and my first bite into that warm, yeasty loaf moved -- yes, moved me in a way only great art or great cooking can do.

I know you're thinking, what's wrong with you? It's only bread, right? No. This was no oversized marshmallow in a sterilized plastic wrapper. This bread had weight, texture; a golden, crusty crust; a dense, flavorful crumb. This bread smelled heavenly. I had to have more! But if I wanted real bread, short of volunteering to baby-sit every night, I was going to have to learn to bake it myself.

As I began my quest to learn the art of bread baking, I discovered that it has truly become a lost art form in America. Thanks to this instant gratification society in which we live, we're willing to trade quality for convenience, and we've lost our human connection to the food we eat. It comes out of a bag, we have no idea what goes into making it, and we don't even notice that our bread has no texture, no smell, no taste! What happened to our sensual connection to food?

It's even hard to find a good bread recipe nowadays. Ingredients are fairly straightforward, no matter what type of bread you’re making.  The basis of all bread is flour, leavening, water or milk, and salt.  Everything else contributes to the unique flavors and textures of the dozens of different kinds of breads enjoyed around the world.  But it's the everything else -- that one extra ingredient added to a basic bread recipe, the quality of the ingredients you use, the way you handle the dough, then leave it be -- that make each homemade loaf of bread such a work of art. The bread sections in my newer cookbooks were alarmingly short, consisting mostly of roll-type things and special occasion breads. The cookbooks inherited from grandma had lots of bread recipes, but no pictures, vague instructions -- they assume you already know how to bake your own bread. Finally, I just asked my neighbor for her recipe, that yummy "Swiss Braid" that had started me on this mission in the first place.

It wasn't until I attempted my first loaf that I learned: baking bread is hard work! And it takes a long time. And it makes a huge mess all over the kitchen. And it's fraught with pitfalls for the novice baker. But it forces you to use your senses, reconnect with your food, put passion and creativity and effort into the outcome. That's what makes it art.

But first, I discovered, there were the problems. Take yeast for instance. Yeast was a problem. Yeast, in its unbaked form, looks like dirt and smells like feet. Yeast comes in a zillion different forms. My little envelope of yeast, labeled only "YEAST," was not reassuring me, even though the recipe said it was what I should use. I dissolved the yeast in sour cream warmed to 98.6°. And here was another problem -- cooking temperature. Without a cooking thermometer, there was lots of angst over the exact temperature of liquid sour cream.

Next, the directions dictated, sift the flour. Sifting -- here was my third problem. The closest thing I had to a sifter was a colander. I decided that modern flour does not require sifting, and just stirred the salt and flour together. Using a wooden spoon, I began to stir the ingredients into dough. The smell of the yeast as it reacted with the other ingredients began to perfume my kitchen. The cat wandered in for a sniff.

wander on for more...

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