BY ROBERT GRAY | Special to Moonshine Ink
I had already been ramping up my bread-making a few months before all of this novel coronavirus stuff started going down. I was into it before mass groups of people began buying up the retail stores of flour, yeast, and sugar to make bread at home, following a similar trend to the infamous mass-purchasing of toilet paper, cleaning products, and beans. Perhaps this behavior can be explained by the feelings of needing some kind of control during these very uncertain scary times. With bread, I proffer another hypothesis for the rise in home baking: connection.
Four years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
He had finished grad school a year earlier, moved to San Francisco for a sweet job with his wife of a few years (together for many), and a brand-new baby girl. During his treatments, he and his wife started baking bread. For whatever reason, navigating and living through the most tempestuous phase of their lives so far, they baked bread. With starter that they nurtured themselves, balls of sourdough bread started to become a fixture of their lives; sometimes handsome, Instagram-worthy beauts and other times — more often than I’d like to mention — not so impressive to downright homely. Over the years, however, their Bread Wall of Fame has gotten quite crowded, as will happen when doing something repetitively with continued love.
This was the time I started baking bread using their donated starter and photo-snapped copies of their recipes, honed by trial and error and their enthusiasm to make something of edible beauty. I’ll be the first to admit that I have never created a loaf that compares to any of their past mediocre average lookers, let alone anywhere near one of their blue ribbons. I’ve simplified my recipes a bit (more on that later). My friends have since moved to Hawaii and I find a way to visit them at least twice a year, mainly for their bread and company, but the beaches and Honolulu’s manapuas are nice, too. Bread, in a weird way, connected us through some of the most difficult times of their lives. When I think of them, or if we’re sharing a visit and time together, the topic of baking bread always comes up.
This brings me to baking bread during these days of COVID-19. It’s all about the connections.
The connection between the five basic ingredients — flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and water — and the baker’s hands that persuade the unruly mass of lumpy sticky dough into something smooth and pliable, eager to become a thing of beauty. This is why I personally do not use a mixer for kneading. I believe the connection would be lost and I might miss the subtle whispers of the dough telling me, ‘I’m ready.’
The connection with the baker’s sense of sight, seeing the dough grow and rise to just the right size, and the sense of smell of the aroma coming from the oven knowing something magical just happened.
The connection with the lucky people in the bakers’ lives with whom they share their bread, and yes, it needs to be shared. Always make two loaves. Always make two loaves — luckily bread is not a vector of the coronavirus.
And finally, the connection with friends whom I’ve baked bread with over Zoom and Gotomeeting. Yes, this is kind of a thing, well, at least my thing during these days of physical distancing. These shared hours focusing on a task such as this — advising, comparing, complimenting — are so rewarding and don’t require the fuel of alcohol that accompany most Zoom social hours (not to say those aren’t fun, perhaps just not as rewarding).
For all the work the bakers put into the bread, fostering and growing their different connections, whether it be with friends and/or family that they bake for or with, they get in return an appreciation and gratitude that is so honest and genuine, basically a warm heart, simple and good.
As I mentioned previously, I started with sourdough bread. My results were not always stellar and I struggled with the demands of keeping the starter happy and healthy. These days I’m using engineered yeast and a wonderful simple recipe that comes from King Arthur Flour Company. Just do a search for “the easiest loaf of bread you’ll ever bake” and, voilà, you’re on your way!
Main Image Caption: SOCIAL CALL: Joining together to bake bread with friends via a virtual conferencing platform like Zoom is rewarding, the prize being nice crusty loaves you create like these made by Robert Gray, while also staying connected with friends. Courtesy photo