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copyright ©1999-2003

the lost art of baking bread 
by Kelly Beachell Gasner
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Filled with good cheer now, I turned my ingredients out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for five minutes till the dough is smooth and elastic, read the recipe. I eagerly began to knead.

And knead.

And my arms began to ache. And I kneaded. I began to sweat. And I kneaded. I began to curse. Still kneading.

Five minutes passed. I wondered if this dough would ever stop sticking to the counter and my hands and become smooth and elastic. I wondered if all those hours in the gym had been for nothing, if a little bit of bread could wear me out like this. I kept kneading.

And eventually, as promised, the dough became smooth and elastic. I rejoiced and left my dough to rise for about an hour and a half, until doubled in size.

Meanwhile, I was confronted with the mess. There were spilled yeast granules on the floor. There were bowls and pans on the stove. There was flour everywhere -- on the floor, on the counters and stove and cabinets, on my clothes, my hands, in my hair. There was flour on the cat's nose, over which he scowled at me indignantly before stomping off for a bath, leaving a trail of floury paw prints on the carpet. I'd thought I would rest while the dough rose -- instead, I began to clean.

After an hour and a half, I retrieved the dough -- but it hadn't doubled in size. It seemed to have hardly risen at all. Well, I thought, maybe "double" is an exaggeration. I proceeded with the recipe, turning the dough out onto my cleaned-up and refloured surface.

Punch it down, the recipe said. I studied the ball of dough. Really? Punch it? I punched my fist down into the dough and it sank under the pressure with a surprising puff of air. To my astonishment, the dough had become warm as the yeast did its thing, and now felt very vital and alive. I punched until I was sure all the air was removed from the dough, and then divided it into two sections, rolling each out into 14 inch ropes. It was time to make the braid.

My neighbor's Swiss Braid is beautiful, golden and glossy. The instructions seemed easy: make a cross, fold the top end over, fold the remaining end over, fold the rope under the…wait, no, fold the bottom over the third…what?...no, the top under the bottom over the…

I began cursing again.

Soon I abandoned the notion of the braid altogether, simply twisting the two lengths of dough around each other. Now that the dough had taken on a loaf shape (albeit not the one I set out to make), I covered it up, and left it to rise again for forty minutes, and tackled the new mess. The cat, I noticed, was now keeping a safe distance. After forty minutes, the dough still didn't seem to have increased in size at all, but there was no giving up now. I slid the bread into the oven and hoped for the best.

Thirty minutes later, I opened the oven door with my heart in my throat. Would all this have been worth it? Had I discovered the secrets to homemade happiness?

The loaf was golden brown and smelled heavenly. Though flatter than my neighbor's nicely puffed braid, it still had all the dense, chewy texture of her more expert creation. I tore into the bread, spread it with real butter, and was moved.

wander on for more bread baking tips...

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