Baking Bread by Hand

I’ve always had a passionate love affair with bread. There’s just something about a crusty loaf of bread still warm from the oven that sends me into a state of bliss. Years ago, The Man We Call Dad gave me a breadmaker as a Christmas gift. It was a lovely thing, easy to use, easy to clean, and it made fresh, warm bread on command. No more bakery trips for me, no sirree! I could have fresh bread at home every single day if I so desired.

But something about it was… wrong. Nothing big, but still… wrong.

The bread that came out of it smelled wonderful and tasted wonderful, but the texture was… wrong. Always wrong. Every time.

Now bread, as you probably know, comes in all sorts of different textures and tastes and colours, so to say that the texture was always wrong is a pretty big statement, but it’s true. No matter what kind of dough I prepared nor which settings I used, the bread that the machine produced was pretty good but never quite right and for all my years of using it, I never did figure out the trick to making a lovely, soft, crusty, perfect bread.

But I still used it. A lot. Because there’s nothing quite like a house filled with the smell of fresh, warm, yeasty bread. Even if the texture isn’t quite right.

Years later, long after I had given up on my quest for perfect bakery bread and settled for almost perfect bread, tragedy occurred: my breadmaker committed death by jumping off the counter. It’s true. The silly thing had taken to vibrating more and more while kneading the dough until one morning it managed to knead itself right onto the floor with a giant crash and thump followed by a peculiar grinding sound. I ran into the kitchen only to find my beloved breadmaker scattered across the floor in more pieces than I knew it had, with bread dough slowly oozing out of its body like a pale parody of blood.

It was the end of the breadmaker.

It was the end of homemade bread. Because really, who has time to make bread by hand anymore?

The following Christmas, even though we were insanely busy with a toddler and a new house, and despite the fact that we lived much closer to a bakery than we had before and could even walk to the bakery for bread whenever we wanted, I decided I needed a new breadmaker.

Now The Man We Call Dad loves bread just as much as I do, and maybe even more. While I can walk by the bakery and think to myself “I wonder if they have any of that lovely Belgian loaf today?” and mean to stop in but somehow get distracted and forget until the next time I walk by the bakery, the Man We Call Dad can’t walk by the bakery without stopping in.

As a matter of fact, he can’t even drive past the bakery without stopping in, and he inevitably comes out again with more bags than he has hands. Croissants. Chocolate croissants. Apple turnovers. Crusty white bread with its oh-so-fluffy insides. Seedy multigrain bread with its dense brown deliciousness. Baguettes, Belgian loaves, tiny perfectly round buns and oversized ciabatta’s alike… he loves them all. (Well except for the multigrain bread — that’s my obsession.)

So when I announced it was time for a new breadmaker, The Man We Call Dad set out to find one. The very best one. The better than very best one. And when he found it, he wrapped it in pretty paper and put it under the tree and laughed when I squealed like a little girl when I saw that not only does it make bread, it has a thing that lets you make four little baguettes too. And the texture…

…the texture is almost, almost perfect. Almost. A thousands times more perfect than the previous breadmaker, but still not quite.

I love my breadmaker. I do. I use it constantly. I love the bread it makes. I think it’s crazy that it even has a setting for making jams and applesauce. I love making four tiny baguettes to serve with dinner.

Who am I kidding – I love making any kind of bread in my breadmaker.

But somehow this past year, I’ve been moving away from using the breadmaker and starting to make bread by hand. Not because I have tons of time, but because it’s delicious, and it turns out that I actually like making bread by hand. It’s sort of like a meditation that you can eat.

And with the Artisan Bread recipe, I can make dough one week and have fresh bread coming out of the oven every two or three days for up to two weeks. Being me, of course I dragged the kids into my breadmaking adventures. K isn’t so interested, but B enjoys getting her fingers in the dough.

A couple of weeks ago, we had company of the kid kind and they were all busily playing so I thought it would be the perfect time to get some dough made up. I started getting out my biggest mixing bowl and flour and salt and yeast. Like magic, two little girls appeared at my side.

“Whatcha making?” B wanted to know.

“Are you making cookies?” her friend C asked – having made cookies with me the week before.

When I told C that I was making bread, she had the most suspicious look on her face, as if somehow I must be teasing her because people just don’t do that. You buy bread, you don’t make bread, after all.

But then I said the magic words: “Do you want to help?”

Within seconds, my kitchen looked like this…

…the girls’ hands looked like this…

…and there was so much giggling and squealing that you might have thought we were having a tickle-fight in the kitchen.

The dough mixed, we left it to sit a while while they played, and the look on C’s face when she realized her little lump of dough had just doubled in size was priceless. She poked at it with her finger and watched in amazement as it deflated again as she molded it into a roundish loaf, then we slashed the tops and left them to rise again. Thus risen, into the oven it went, and just in time for supper, we had this:

Fresh white bread with a crunchy, crusty outside, still warm from the oven and smelling yeasty and wonderful.

And the texture?

Perfect.

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