In the spring of 2019, I decided to stop buying bread. I felt that we could eat better bread for less money and with less packaging, and the only thing it would take was a few hours each week, most of which would be time spent waiting for the bread to rise.
I didn’t know how to bake bread. That is, I had made a couple of different kinds for our our blog, but I didn’t really know how to knead, or how to tell when ingredients were in proper proportion, or how long to let the dough rise. The few breads I had under my belt had leaned toward being dense rather than fluffy (which I think was down to impatience during the rising stage and a cool Toronto kitchen). I had a lot to learn, but I was motivated by the idea of less waste (goodbye to bread bags and plastic best before tags) and of course, the dream of freshly baked bread cooling on the kitchen table. I was armed with the wonderful guidance of Titli Nihaan, a bread guru on YouTube, whose videos made baking look so simple. I wish I could remember now what my first bread was, but I can’t. I know I followed Titli’s recipes for challah, pretzels, split tin, bara brith, cornbread, sourdough, no-knead bread, and more, all to great success. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her recipes were excellent.
I bake one loaf every weekend, and the results get better and better. My loaves are lighter and more complexly flavourful every time. I calculated the price of an average loaf to be just over $1.50 in flour, yeast, and salt. Occasionally, the recipes include eggs, oil, or butter, which might add between 30 cents and one dollar to the total value. In other words, we spend less or about the same as we would on a loaf of Wonder Bread, which tastes like nothing, molds faster, and comes wrapped in plastic.
More than anything, though, baking bread gives me immense satisfaction, akin to the pleasure I take from working in a garden. Creating with your hands and watching that creation grow (whether a ball of dough or a potato plant) is so rewarding, and there is a feeling when I take a plump loaf of bread out of the oven — a feeling like love. I love that little bread, or at least, I have poured my love into making it, and I know that Eric and I will spend the next week being nourished by that love. There is also something beautifully feminine (whether a baker is female or male or both or neither is immaterial) about the act of creation and love that is bread baking. (Feminist sidebar: I am often hesitant to embrace traditional female tasks in fear of being a bad feminist, but I have learned that to do so is to deny the power in femininity. And what is more powerful than punching a dough into submission?) I might be waxing poetical here, but there has been an emotional depth to my breadventure that has taken me by surprise.
Before I met Eric, the only bread I used to buy was tortilla. When I lived alone, I simply couldn’t go through a loaf of bread before it molded. Eric is a bread-lover, and that is an understatement. He is currently (jokingly) building a movement to remove the negative connotations of the term “wheat belly,” which in current use indicates the extra weight one puts on from ingesting too many wheat-based products. With the gluten-free wave still going strong, he is fighting a hard battle.
When we started the Wooden Spoon Wanderer project back in November 2017, Eric jumped right into making bread, with his very first assignment: Togo. Ablo bread was a bit of a fail — Eric learned that allowances should have been made for the difference in temperature between Togo and Toronto — but our breadventures were underway. I was more hesitant to try my hand at bread-making. It held a place in my mind as a Very Hard Thing to Make. My first real attempt was for Egypt — pita bread. The pitas turned out so beautifully that my bread fear disappeared (and pita entered our regular cooking rotation).
Leavened bread likely dates back to ancient Egypt, where the word for bread is synonymous with the word for life. I never feel more connected to a place, its people, and its culinary history, than when I am kneading dough. If bread is on the menu, Eric and I usually have to plan the timing of the entire operation around it. Bread cannot be rushed. It takes its time to come together, to knead, to rise, to bake.
It is a privilege to have the time to put in the effort of baking, and one I never take for granted. I look forward to Saturdays, when my day revolves around a covered bowl of slowly rising dough. I look forward to seeing Eric’s face when the bread is placed on its cooling rack, and he paces around the kitchen, ready with a breadknife, until the loaf is cool enough to eat. I look forward to the first bite, and the feeling of the love I put out into the world returning to my body, to be used again next week for another bread.