Sometimes, in the grand scheme of this crazy culinary life of mine, there are days that can only be well-passed if spent in the pursuit of bread. Any bread will do: quick breads, yeast breads, sweet or savory, but bread, I fully believe, is an art that resurrects part of the soul of a Gourmet Geek like me. And if I’m honest, for a real, soulful, down and dirty breadmaking day, it’s gotta be something I can knead.
I don’t know why bread has achieved the mystique it has among home cooks. True, the perfect loaf can be an elusive creature; but it’s really not so hard, and it wasn’t that long ago that the ability to make one’s own bread was a necessary life skill. It’s also cheap, which in this day and age is not only a mark of nostalgia but also of some serious middle-class suburban pride (funny that we’ll continue, as a culture, to spend $3 and up on our morning drive-through coffees, but the art of feeding a family of four for under $10 per meal has become more than a cottage industry). I sit here as guilty as the next person — I’m chugging my brew from a reusable cup I brought from home, but more than a paltry share of my grocery dollars last week went to some relatively chi-chi locally produced grass-fed antibiotic-free hormone-free pedicured manicured yogic tantric vegan mountaintop-dwelling meat. Yet I feel triumphant about the fact that my homemade bread, at pennies per loaf, is vastly superior to the $2.50 per loaf supermarket stuff we usually eat.
Why? Because it IS superior. Whereas I couldn’t possibly, in the real world, produce my own meat, and have it be superior to the usual commercially farmed stuff that routinely goes on sale for less than a dollar or two per pound at the grocery store, I can actually make my own bread and enjoy the fact that my efforts have treated me and the family to something that’s better than what I can buy, unless what I choose to buy is of the $5 per loaf artisanal variety — in which case, we’ve come full circle, because I may as well just make my own. Also, there’s major satisfaction in the baking of bread because contrary to popular belief, it is more art than science. Sure, you’ve got to have the right proportions of flours and so forth to leaveners, and the right amount of liquid, but when it comes right down to it, there’s no better gauge for those things than the feel of the dough. I can’t tell you if your loaf will need four cups of flour or five, but if I’ve got my hands in it, I’ll use the right amount.
With bread flour in the pantry from last week’s pretzels, a crisp breeze outside, and the yen for baking creeping up inside me, yesterday seemed to be a bread day. Importantly, it was a day that afforded me the time to make bread — I do realize that the TIME factor is probably one of the biggest deterrents for most people, when they consider trying to bake their own bread. But it’s relatively idle time, actually. With two 40-minute periods during which the dough had to be left alone to rise, I was able to clean the half bath, make homemade applesauce, sweep the entire downstairs, do two loads of laundry, strip beds, and vacuum my kids’ rooms, plus prep a roast for dinner and drink a cup of coffee. (Rising time, for me, appears to be motivating. Based on this rundown, my mother would probably say I should bake bread every day.)
I started off easy, with a quick bread — just a couple of loaves of banana bread, into which I threw a small amount of dark chocolate chips to give the kids a thrill. It’s been a while since I made banana bread, and it’s a perennial favorite in our house, so it seemed like a good warm-up to the main event. While the banana bread was in the oven, I got down to business creating something new: Veggie Bread, laden with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and red peppers.
The inspiration for this particular yeast bread was a thread on some community forum about vegetable cream cheese. I actually hate cream cheese — it’s one of maybe 3 or 4 foods in the world that I don’t eat — and I despise it enough that I can’t even bring myself to like cheesecake. Although J. does like cream cheese, he’s not such a big fan that he misses having it around; and L. was exposed to it during a “try-it” day at school, wherein he tried it…and hated it. We’ve never given it to P., though at some point I probably will — he’s such a dairy addict that he might enjoy it, and I do try not to let my food preferences shape what I’ll let my kids try. But on this particular thread, people were talking about all the different veggie cream cheeses they make at home to put on their kids’ sandwiches, and I kept thinking that there had to be a way to make the idea work for us without using cream cheese. While I’ve used whole-milk ricotta as a good substitute in veggie and fruit spreads before, it doesn’t hold up as well in a lunch box. So I kept thinking…and coming back to the idea that if the vegetables could only be in the bread itself, then a grilled cheese or other fare would be elevated magically not by what was in the sandwich, but what was around it.
The recipe for the veggie bread made enough for two generous loaves, so I experimented by doing one loaf and one tray of breadsticks. The breadsticks will have to be perfected another day, because I made 12 of them, and they blew up to such monumental proportions (hooray for an excellent rise!) that they’re more like mini-loaves, and they baked into one another so that I had to break them apart after cooling. But no matter. The kids — and I — LOVED this bread. P. ate an entire breadstick by himself and still wanted more, and L. actually ate a slice of the banana-chip bread for dessert last night, then came into the kitchen and gave a longing glance at a half slice of the veggie bread that was on the counter. He didn’t say a word, but his continued baleful stares finally prompted me to slip the chunk of bread into his hand, upon which he trotted happily out of the kitchen with his cheeks crammed full. Their reactions prod me towards one conclusion: lunchboxes this week will be packed with sandwiches of all descriptions, on lovely homemade bread, and the nostalgic nerd that lurks inside me couldn’t be more self-satisfied.