Sometimes, my sense of greatest achievement arises from doing modest things very well, or, at least to my taste!
Take this crusty loaf of white bread, which I majestically created yesterday in a fit of inspiration.
First, let me explain. Growing up in central Delaware on a farm with five siblings, one of the great joys of my life as a young boy was to rush home from school, famished, and a eat some crusty Jewish Rye bread slathered with homemade creamery butter and lots of preserves. Then, I’d wash it all down with one or more glasses of cold whole milk.
The bread I refer to was a “kindness” that a friend of our family periodically picked up from a New Jersey deli and flew across the Delaware River in their private plane. Once overhead, they would circle our house until we ran out waving, just to sure we saw them. Thus satisfied, they would drop four or five loaves of bread in tiny makeshift parachutes they had brought for that delivery, circle one more time, tip their wings, then head back home.
I couldn’t imagine, as a young boy, anything of such good fortune falling from the sky. It was truly, for me, like “manna from heaven“.
That recollection lead me to this.
At present, with many years and even more miles on this old body, I have finally found the time to do some of the things that give me personal pleasure, rather than simply work for dollars to provide for my family and friends.
I have enjoyed cooking and baking my whole life (when time permitted). The early starts to my days in construction had me preparing a hearty, hot breakfast before I left for work. I was raised on fresh, home-grown fruits, vegetables, herbs, and meats. And the habit stuck with me.
And while I expanded my repertoire to all nature of entrees and desserts, the one thing I never quite mastered was making bread.
So in the last three or four years, I decided once and for all to learn how to bake a loaf of crunchy, delicious, fresh bread from scratch.
And “yes“, I have had some successes along the way, but NEVER quite produced the loaf that would perpetually put a smile on my face… until yesterday.
The night before, as I reviewed my plans for the next day, which involved a five-hour round-trip to get my second COVID shot, I was inspired to try yet one more time to achieve my “impossible dream”.
I had been told by friends my age that “the second shot” often leaves people my age feeling a little punk, so what could be more rewarding than simply tending the oven for a little while, and try yet one more time once again.
So I set about doing what I’ve learned to do very well recently: “Google” another recipe.
And lo and behold, what to my wondering eyes should appear but “…one of the most popular recipes The (New York) Times has ever published, courtesy of Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery.
It requires no kneading. It uses no special ingredients, equipment or techniques.
And it takes very little effort — only time.
You will need 24 hours to create the bread, but much of this is unattended waiting, a slow fermentation of the dough that results in a perfect loaf”.
NOTE: quote above was taken from NYT citation.
So I did what was asked of me: I mixed together flour, a tiny bit of yeast, salt, and water to make a sloppy, wet dough. Based on past experience, it didn’t look promising, but it WAS what the recipe called for.
I dutifully placed the dough in a large bowl, covered it with a plastic grocery bag, and set it inside my unheated oven and went to bed. It was to ferment for 12 to 18 hours.
The next morning, as I dashed out the door at 8 AM, I peeked in the oven and again, was not impressed. The dough had not risen, but there were signs of bubbles on the top; “something” was working. So I shrugged my shoulders and headed out.
When I returned in the late afternoon, my first stop was to peek in the oven, only to find what looked like a hopeless, limp, soggy mess.
“Do I pitch this effort and cut my losses, or do I continue down the path…” I thought to myself.
But as is my want: “in for a dime, in for a dollar“.
So I floured a work surface, spread the gooey mess on top, and, as instructed, folded the edges over itself twice, covered it, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
The consistency of the dough was unlike any I had ever experienced in the past. While it had an unnatural silky feel to it, it was limp, too wet, and showed none of the characteristics that I thought were necessary to make bread. But I continued on.
The next step called for me to get two cotton towels, put one down and cover it with flour, lay the wet dough on top, sprinkle it with more flour, then lay the second towel on top to cover. Then let it rest again for two more hours.
I half hour before this last rest, I turned on my oven to 450°, and put a cast-iron Dutch Oven with lid inside the to preheat.
There still did not appear to be any hope of EVER ending this effort with an edible loaf of bread.
But at the right time, I took the lid off the pot, dropped the dough inside, then replaced the lid to bake for 30 minutes.
The final step called for me to remove the lid, and bake another 15 to 30 minutes to brown the crust.
When I removed the top, I couldn’t believe my eyes: could it possibly be?
I’m thinking: “Nirvana“.
It turned out to be the most perfect, crusty, crunchy, delicious loaf of white bread I had ever baked!
The lesson I will take to my grave from this experience is: “Consider the source, then, simply ‘BELIEVE’ and move smartly on”.
The smile has never left my face. If only my folks could see me now!