Friday, January 9, 2009

Bread Matters

I wrote this a little while ago.

I miss making bread. I miss the feel of the dough, the smell of the baking, and the taste of warm bread with melting butter.

Every year I make the resolution that this year I’ll find the time -- no, this year I’ll make the time to bake. In the beginning I made ambitious resolutions: “I’ll bake all of our bread – even pittas!” or “I’ll bake at least twice a week!” or even “I’ll refuse to buy bread. That way I’ll have to bake, and my family, if they want bread, will have to eat my healthy bread!”

Gradually the resolutions dwindled to desires, and finally even the desires were beaten down by my husband’s dislike for whole wheat bread and my children’s clamours for square sliced white. What’s the point of baking if only I am going to eat it?

But an hour ago I saw a recipe for Irish soda bread. And between the lines I thought I smelled an aroma that permeated my young adulthood – when I used to bake Irish soda bread in my Galway kitchen. My high school friend, Erin, and I would go blackberrying in the lanes near Spiddal and we would come home for tea and warm soda bread, spread thickly with Kerrygold butter and homemade jam.

Could I recapture the feeling of culinary comfort in my Mediterranean kitchen?

The recipe is heartbreakingly easy (why have I taken so long to make it?). Mix three hundred grams of white flour with three hundred grams of whole wheat. Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of soda. Made a well in the centre and pour in a milk-yoghurt mix of about 450ml. Combine the ingredients until all of the flour is incorporated in a loose, but not wet ball. Knead for just a moment. Flatten to five centimetres thickness. Cut a deep cross on the top, prick the corners to let the fairies out, then bake in a 230C oven for twenty minutes before decreasing the heat to 200C for a further fifteen. Break on the cross, slice if you can, spread with Kerrygold. Eat.

The loaf came from the oven risen and crusty. When I knocked the base, it rewarded me with a fine dusting of brown flour and a hollow thump. It smelled the same as my Irish version – not yeasty, of course, but warm and wheaty. It tasted the same – a bit like pastry, but with an edge. It didn’t capture the feeling, because tastes and smells -- even when they match memories -- need a secret ingredient based on time and place to do that. (When I lived in Hawaii, I loved guavas. Here, although we planted a tree with seeds from Hawaii, I can’t abide them: some kind of reverse alchemy gets to work and in the absence of Hawaiian air, light, scents, something, I can’t even stand the smell.)

But it revived my resolution. I will make time to bake. And even if I’m the only one who eats my bread, I will enjoy the process.


  1. I suppose I cheat. We have a breadmaker. That way I get the wonderful smell of baking bread, and the taste of freshly-made bread with butter, and total control over the ingredients. But I don't have to knead or pound or get my fingers messy (which, not being artistically inclined, were the bits of bread-making that I didn't like when I used to do it by hand).