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Our Daily Bread-Making

Bread. It boxes in the ham and cheese in a concoction named after the Earl of Sandwich. It is synonymous with greenbacks and various dead presidents. Some people, mainly our wives, even "win" the stuff. It's broken in friendship and used allegorically as the source of life and salvation.

Lately I've become obsessed with the stuff. I've started making my own on a regular basis, determined to become the sole source of bread for our family. Not with a machine, mind you, but with my own two hands. The way it should be done, with sticky hands, long waits during rises, a bit of elbow grease, and the constant smell of yeast eating, burping, farting.

I've long had a fascination with yeast and grains. I once considered a career as a baker, where I could use my hands to shape loaves and indulge in the tactile sensations of dough. It gave me the same satisfaction I'd had as a kid digging in the dirt, squeezing the mud through my fingers. I soon discovered baker's hours were in direct opposition to my natural rhythms: bakers start work at about the time I like to go to bed. I chose another pre-SaHD career path that allowed me to play with dirt and started making my own bread regularly at home. I fell in with a coven of yeast worshippers who brewed their own beer and had their own set of ritual behaviors for the making and consumption of the stuff. Soon I was doing the same.

The little yeasties even played a role in hooking my wife: I brought a fresh-baked hearty loaf and a couple of bottles of home brew to her house on our first get-together and the little critters worked their magic. A loaf of bread, a jug of home brew, and thou. Or something like that.

We moved to the tropics several years ago and the yeast just didn't want to perform in that environment. The temperature and humidity caused the things to self-destruct prematurely, driving them to engage in a suicidal feeding frenzy. Besides that, the only white flour I could get must have been a decade old and did not respond well to use: I ended up with several flat, tasteless loaves with the texture of granite. I decided to switch to non-yeast leavening in my baking, which I rarely did anyway because of the intense heat in the kitchen. I even attempted to brew a batch of beer (I hand carried the ingredients on the plane from Seattle--precious stuff) and produced a fine crop of exploding bottles and vinegar. I decided to abandon my interest in the cultivation of micro-fauna and concentrate on raising vegetables instead.

Once we moved back to a temperate climate I was looking forward to baking again and was psyched to discover a windmill in our town where I could buy all kinds of fresh stoneground grains and flours. I went there just to browse and soak up the musty, earthy smell of fresh ground grain. When I started baking with it I was even more impressed with the difference fresh flour makes in the texture and taste of baked goods but, alas, I was still using non-yeast leavening for cakes and cookies only.

This fall I experienced a yeast renaissance of sorts. The weather turned nasty and wet early this year, so I was drawn to the kitchen and the comfort of a warm oven and the smells of fresh baked goodies. Then, out of the blue, I decided to make bread one day, as if the yeast beasties were calling to me from the cupboard where I had absentmindedly stashed them months ago after shopping. Or maybe it was the pile of laundry waiting to be folded, begging to be ignored.

In any case, I made two loaves. Not the best I've ever made, since I was out of practice. Next came cinnamon rolls, pizza dough, and better loaves after tweaking the humidity of my oven. I was hooked once again. I had forgotten how good it feels to knead the dough and work the simple ingredients of water, yeast, flour, sweetener and salt into a wholly new form, like a living, breathing organism.

The day-long process of bread making becomes a rhythm that shapes the day and is as satisfying as the delicious fresh baked loaves eaten warm with butter. Nothing better, and a feeling that a bread machine can't deliver.

[ Editor's Note: Michael Price recommends The Tassajara Bread Book and Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking for bread-making neophytes who nevertheless want to give this most ancient and satisfying art a try.] © 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.