More than 40 years ago there was, in the weekend house in upstate New York I shared with the man I then lived with, a woodburning kitchen stove. That's it. You either built a fire or you didn't get hot coffee in the morning. Or hot food.
Over many weekends, I taught myself to make bread in that wood burning stove. I experimented with white bread, wheat bread, rye bread, sweet breads and most of all, challah. It took a lot of trial and error but it became my most successful loaf.
When the relationship ended, so did my bread baking. Until last week.
Living alone AND carefully watching what I eat so not to regain the 40 pounds I lost a year ago, I don't eat much bread these days. But I really do like bread in all its many forms and flavors. What I don't like is throwing out bread because loaves are too big for a single person to finish before they become moldy or hard.
So last week, for the first time in more than 40 years, I baked a small loaf of bread – soda bread for the season and because I didn't have yeast in the house. After all, this was an experiment to see if I still have the touch.
It was pretty good, the soda bread. Not fantastic, but okay. The recipe needs work. And, of course, the cooking vessel – wood-fired, electric or gas - changes the qualities of bread so the recipe must be altered depending on the type of oven.
My bread baking background so long ago is only in a wood stove oven so if I am to continue making bread (I still have my book of trial-and-error bread recipes from the 1970s), I'll need to figure out how to adjust for an electric oven.
While thinking this over, I recalled that not long ago, Tom Delmore send me a poem by Joan Seliger Sidney. It is titled, On Approaching Seventy which doesn't give you the first clue that is also about making challah.
Watching the hands of my son
kneading challah dough
on the maple cutting board
in my kitchen, a memory
rises of my mother
bending over our kitchen table
in Flatbush, pressing, stretching,
folding flour, water, eggs
into a living elastic.
Sometimes in my dreams, Mom
appears, whispers of her mother
in her kitchen in Zurawno
in the pre-dawn dark,
by the light of the kerosene
lamp, pulling and pushing
the yeasty challah
until my son covers it
with a clean white cloth
and leaves it in the warm
electric oven to rise.
Here is Garrison Keillor reading Sidney's poem from his Writers Almanac website.
The poem is from Joan Seliger Sidney's collection Bereft and Blessed published in 2014.
Is anyone else around here resurrecting an old skill?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Trudi Kappel: Matzo Ball Soup