Making Bread

Posted on Friday, 18 February 2022 under Stories

Like Anna Jones, the British vegetarian chef who studied under Jamie Oliver, I see a fresh-baked hearty bread sliced warm and topped with butter as a health and comfort food no green smoothie could ever rival.

On a wet stormy day when the air tasted like wet leaves and cold water, and we were home with the kids due to seasonal colds, I felt the urge to make warm fresh bread. I hadn’t done so in such a long time so a familiar doubt whispered in my ear “you always mess bread up and the yeast never works”.

But I had Anna’s book “A Modern Cook Year” open to the page for the spelt and rye loaf and it looked incredible. A perfect oval with a crisp, but inviting, crust sitting on a wooden kitchen table facing a big window streaming with sun. It was calling me to make it. Daring me to duel my doubt and jump in without fear.

My partner has been making natural sourdough bread for years now. Since way before the pandemic bread-making became a thing that everyone wanted to suddenly do. His loaves are perfect pieces of bread art with a crunchy golden exterior and a soft bouncy cream interior full of different-sized holes like a sea sponge. We usually eat one of his loaves in a single day to the equal balance of joy and annoyance from my partner who spent hours making it.

For me, sourdough bread making felt overly complicated and making a meaty whole grain sourdough was a near Olympian feat. So, I gravitate instead to the bread my mom used to make when I was little. Simple brown bread made with honey and active yeast granules. They don’t have quite the same health properties as sourdough with its natural yeasts and fermentation process but they are quick and satisfying.

Anna’s recipe seemed simple and approachable. The ingredients are also simple. Spelt and rye flour, salt, hot water, honey, active yeast. That was it. Kneed twice only. What could go wrong?

I mixed the two whole-grain flowers with the pink sea salt. The mixture looked so wholesome, like an egg in a womb awaiting fertilization. Next, I mixed the hot water, honey, and yeast. The directions told me to mix till dissolved then wait for the bubbles to rise to the top.

This yeast step has for years caused me to fear breadmaking. It seems like an overly silly thing to be bad at but I could never seem to get it to work. This time, the water seemed the right temperature, I followed the instructions carefully, then I watched very closely through the glass measuring cup as if I were exploring sea life in an aquarium through underground glass walls. A few big bubbles the size you might see popping out of a babies’ mouth came first and fast to the middle of the measuring bowl. I waited and watched but didn’t see anymore. I wondered how long I should wait. How many bubbles should there be? I started to let the doubt creep in and colonize my initial excitement. Then a sliver of orange light cut through the dark storm and into my window hitting the bowl at just the right angle and I could suddenly see the yeast dancing ever so gently. But I still didn’t see more bubbles. It was clearly alive so what was wrong?

I looked even closer. I imagine someone watching me might think I had lost my senses being so close to the measuring bowl, head cocked to the side to catch the light. Then, I noticed that the surface looked mustardy milky in colour. How interesting these little creatures are I thought. I tipped my head completely horizontal with the table and took a look at the cross-section through the transparent glass measuring jar. The white surface was foam! So many tiny little excited bubbles jumping up and down waiting to become bread.

I knew it was ready. I couldn’t have been more excited if you had told me I had won a hundred dollars. I made the yeast work! Such a simple kitchen task bringing this much joy might seem a bit ridiculous, but I can honestly tell you it made my week. It is very rare in my day-to-day work that I get this sense of simultaneous awe and sense of mastery.

As I mixed the honey yeast mixture with the wholesome whole grain flour, poured it onto the floured surface, and kneaded it for five minutes I felt a deep calm come over my body. In the midst of a pandemic, a job that has become dull and unrewarding, and a busy and sick family all at home making abundant levels of noise and strife, the making of warm whole grain bread with honey and living yeast grounded my heart, soul, and body. With the warm dough gaining elasticity and form with every turn and push I felt connected to the here and now and to bread makers past and present. I felt especially connected to all the mothers, now and throughout time, who put their labour and love into nourishing food for their young ones.

The bread was baked and as is expected it did not look as perfect and risen as the styled photograph in my Anna Jones cookbook. It did however look like a tempting loaf and was only given moments to cool before my boys came running into our kitchen to find out what kind of treat was coming out of the oven. It was supposed to sit longer but their excitement and mine won the argument over the instructions and we began to slice it open. It had an incredibly thick and sensationally yeasty and honeyed deepness of a crust that cracked when we cut into it. Its insides were the perfect pairing of dense and moist with a nice bounce. We put large slices of grass-fed butter on it which melted deep into bread flesh. The loaf did not last long. By the next day, it was gone. But, the sheer pleasure of accomplishing this simple but technical baking practice and of watching the fruits of my labour bring joy to those I love was enough to hook me for life.

About the Author

Candace Ratelle Le Roy has been leading sustainability initiatives within higher education for almost twenty years and is the co-founder of Simon Fraser University’s Sustainability Initiative. She has a background in social change communication and sustainable community development and believes that storytelling can be a powerful tool for change. She is passionate about regenerative and just food systems as a keystone solution for climate-resilient communities. In her spare time, she reads and writes about food, cooks and bakes, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak vegetables into her kids’ meals with varying levels of success. Her long-term dream is to start an urban community food centre with a bakery and a farm right in the heart of a Metro Vancouver municipality.