An epiphany moment comes when a person bakes bread, waiting forever for its puffy belly to inch up above the bowl. Waiting and waiting until the time comes when it has doubled itself and the baker takes a light fist to its risen center, pushes, and the bread exhales all the air the yeast has let it take in. The bread sighs. Then the baker pushes and pulls and kneads it back into shape to rise again.
These tide-like cycles of waiting and then action, rising and falling, are what carry me into fall each year. Summer’s bright heat and humidity eases away, and I turn from picking my crazy bounty of fresh vegetables toward the thin, clear air and my long line of filled canning jars.
I spend hours over hot water baths in late August and September, putting up all the gorgeous excesses of my garden: pickled carrots, cucumbers and beets; raspberry and blackberry jam; frozen pestos and tomato sauces. At the time, it might not seem worth it—adding the steam of boiling, bubbling hot water to the humidity in my kitchen. The setup for canning, with jars and clamps and ladles, everything clean and sterile, turns the kitchen into a laboratory. I spend my time there conducting canning experiments, trying not to mess up what has taken all season to grow.
Then fall lets me close down a little. Curl up. Light a fire. Read a book. And bake. My baking is, of course, partly motivated by those filled canning jars. All of their contents need a platform—a sturdy, crusty plane upon which to stack, spread and dip.
I start in the morning, mixing the simple ingredients that make up a bread: flour, yeast, water, salt. Working by hand, without a bread machine, helps let you feel when the kneaded dough is ready beneath your hands. Plus, it’s a great workout. In a surprising moment, the dough turns from rough and gooey to silky smooth, and I’m ready to have at least an hour to myself as the little ball is left to rise. I plan my day’s schedule around the rising and falling loaf. For an hour, I do chores or work on writing or read or walk the dog out among the breezes and changing leaves. The dough does its thing without me, but I know I’ll be needed again soon.
After the hour has passed, it’s the beautiful punch-down, a bit more kneading and the dough is formed into a round or rolled to fit into a loaf pan, and another time of waiting is at hand. Time for napping or prepping dinner. I like having a day-long timer going in the back of my mind. It helps me get things accomplished before I step in again to nudge my bread to its next incarnation. Into the oven and then the smell rising and circling the kitchen so that by the time the loaf is done and crusty and cooling on its rack, no one can be in a bad mood.
I try to let it cool completely. Honestly, I do. But usually I cut off a hunk, pop open a jar of jam and go to town. That first moment, when bread meets jam in your first bite of the season, you know you’ve done something right with your life.
Slice the bread thick. Stack it on a plate. Cover the table with jars of pickles and spreads and sweetness. Grab a knife and a fork. Dig in.
Hearty wheat bread recipe
– 1 package active dry yeast
– 1 c. warm water (hot, from the tap, not boiling)
– 2 tablespoons molasses
– 1 teaspoon honey
– 1 tablespoon room temperature butter
– 1 teaspoon sea salt
– 1/4 c. kefir (or milk)
– 2 to 2-1/4 c. whole wheat flour
– white flour as needed
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast, molasses and honey in the warm water. Let rest five minutes until the yeast is puffy. Add the salt and kefir (or milk) and half the flour. The dough will be gooey. Let rest in the bowl 10 minutes. Scrape from the bowl onto a flour-dusted work surface and begin adding the rest of the flour and kneading the dough until it forms a round silky ball, about 10 minutes of active kneading. Feel free to add more flour (at this stage I begin adding white flour) to get to your silky consistency. Wash the mixing bowl, add a touch of oil, place your ball of dough into the bowl and then flip it over so it’s covered lightly with the oil. Place a clean dish towel or a piece of plastic wrap over top of the bowl and let rise for about one hour in a warm place. After your dough has doubled, punch it down and knead a few times to shape it into an oval ball. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and let rise another hour, until doubled. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slash the loaf with a sharp knife, once, twice, or three times across its top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on its bottom. Remove from oven, cool on rack. Eat. Enjoy. Stack, spread and dip.