Here's what we knead now
By Jean Godden
First a confession: I love bread. If forced to select only one food to take to a desert island, I'd pick bread. I've argued that choice with a friend who insists his one food would be potatoes and another who holds out for peanut butter. But, for me, it's always been bread. Hot and crusty with a pat of butter.
It's not only that I love bread, but I've also been feeding my fantasy, turning out loaves during these weeks of stay-at-home quarantine. I am not alone in my rediscovered hobby. Many of us are engaged in stress baking.
Evidence of the baking craze is obvious. It can be seen at almost any supermarket or grocery store: shortages or total absence of yeast and flour. Shelves that used to be filled with basic ingredients for a good loaf are often bare. Who would have guessed that our nation is now lacking standard items that would have been the mainstay of the old general store.
Just this week, I read a Facebook lament from a friend who posted saying that, alas, she couldn't find anything but a lonely sack of bleached cake flour. Another friend thoughtfully revealed several places where he'd recently discovered sacks of all-purpose flour. My lips are sealed of course.
But, once you track down the simple ingredients, there's nothing more comforting than the exercise of mixing flour, salt and water and turning out a picture-perfect loaf. When you can't leave home for days at a time, a home-made loaf is not only food for the table but also nourishment for the soul.
They say that bread, one of the oldest human-made foods, has been with us almost forever. Archeologists found 44,000-year-old bread in Jordan. It's incredible to think that bread making appeared even before agriculture, before the first farmer was born.
And speaking of ingredients, it isn't even necessary to locate that elusive packet or cake of yeast. For many of us, there are alternatives. There are recipes like beer and soda bread that pull off homey goodness without commercial yeast.
For me -- certainly no genius in the kitchen -- the secret is sourdough starter. I've had a starter for more years than Seattle's had major league sports. My sourdough is housed in a crock has been stashed in my fridge since the 70s and refreshed regularly. Each time I add equal amounts of flour and water to the bubbly brew and throw in a pinch of sugar to "sweeten the pot." Sometimes I've been slow, but woe that I should ever completely forget.
Some cooks even name their starter; it is, after all, a living breathing organism brimming with lactobacilli. Recently I read that Edd Kimber, winner of the Great British Bakeoff, hads a name for his starter in these days of quarantine. He's calling it "Quaran-Tina."
In busy years with no time for all-day tending, my starter was mostly used for quick breads like cornbread and pancakes or perhaps folded into the batter for Dutch Babies, Seattle's signature dish.
But these days I'm using my starter to make sourdough loaves, something that starts the night before and takes the better part of day. That's actually one of the beauties of the bread-making craft. It is a time consuming distraction from thinking about the woes of the world. It's assuring when little else is.
The best part for me is when I get into kneading bread. Some bakers don't like working with sticky dough. They insist on no-knead bread recipes, others make the most of their stand mixer. Me, I like the more direct approach. Who's afraid of a little initial stickiness? Working the dough is a great catharsis, punching it down, slapping and pushing and stretching, driving out frustrations. And then there's that great time in the oven, when your creation turns into a masterwork, perfuming the kitchen with fresh-baked aromas.
When times are tough, as these surely are, there's one great answer: Keep the flour handy and bake bread.