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Arbitrary: Why I bake bread

Why I bake bread
Two loaves of my favourite sandwich bread, baking in the oven.

Bread is cheap. For a little more than a buck, I can buy a sale-priced loaf of basic white bread at my local grocery store. If I boost my budget to a couple of bucks, my choices increase. And for a bit more than $5 per loaf, I can get some pretty fantastic bread from a good local bakery.

So, why do I still go through the time and trouble of devoting several hours of a Saturday to baking loaves from scratch? I’ve asked myself this question dozens of times, and here’s how I currently rationalize my bread-making obsession.

The smells: Yes, that’s smells, plural. Everything about making bread smells fantastic. From proofing the yeast (yeasty!) to mixing in the flour (wheaty!) to that point 15 minutes into baking where your entire home smells like freshly baked bread (heaven!). Yes, bakeries also smell great, but you’ll never be able to buy – and lug home – enough bread to make your house smell that fantastic. The aroma is your reward.

The taste: A baguette fresh from the oven, consumed warm, is a special thing that precious few North Americans are able to regularly appreciate. Even breads best left to cool completely before eating are a treat to snack on a few hours out of the oven. With my favourite house recipe – a honey whole wheat loaf that (miracle of miracles) stays fresh for nearly an entire week – I could eat slice after slice, accented with a light smearing of butter.

The Zen, relaxing process: These days, I don’t knead as much dough by hand as I used to – I’ve got a Cuisinart mixer that does a lot of the heavy lifting for me. I don’t feel too guilty about it, as even small, quality-minded bakeries go that route. And yet, I still try to give the bread a bit of a workout on the surface after I determine it’s done kneading in the mixer. The feeling of working elastic dough on a floured surface is something that must be experienced. Gathering the dough, forcing it back down against the surface to develop the gluten, then repeating the motion over and over again until you’re satisfied with the result is deliciously relaxing. A machine can help you get there, but it’s your hands that’ll tell you conclusively if your loaf is ready to rise.

Knowing what’s in there: A book I read a few years back – I believe it was Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food – changed the way I think about bread. While I like to think I’m wise to the antics of food conglomerates, I know I subconsciously trusted the bread-bag illustrations of wheat and the healthy-and-nutritious sales pitches a little too blindly. I remember reading a passage about ingredient lists, and how something as simple and elemental as bread – flour, water, yeast, salt, a knob of butter and a dash of sugar – could evolve into a product with a massive list of ingredients bearing names only a chemist could pronounce. All that other stuff spooked me. I started making more bread from scratch, and buying it from producers like Prairie Mill – a marvellous little bakery with shops in both Edmonton and Calgary – who make their delicious loaves with the most basic of ingredients.

Freshness: In my old neighbourhood in Edmonton, the local grocery store had no bakery. Instead, they brought in mass-produced loaves that could sit on the shelf for ages without going bad or turning to stone. I’m not sure what it was, but it sure wasn’t bread.

Warmth: My apartment in that old neighbourhood was so cold as to be almost unliveable during the winter months. The drafts coming from the unsealed vintage windows made the 14 C air temperature even more uncomfortable. Baking became a survival mechanism, a way of warming up the house (our oven was borderline-antique and leaked heat like crazy) and making it feel warmer through the smells of comfort.

Tweaking/variety: You get to choose what your bread tastes like. If you don’t like how your bread tastes, change your recipe until you find the perfect flavour. As with all home-baked (and -cooked) things, you have ultimate control over the recipe and process. If 100% whole wheat is too heavy, make it 55% whole wheat. If you like your bread springy, mess around with gluten flour. Want some extra fibre? Add some Red River Cereal to your ingredient list for instant multi-grain action. Tinker with sweetness (honey, maple, molasses, or plain old sugar), or cut back on salt (and learn the consequences). It’s like a science experiment you can eat.

Being backwards for the sake of being backwards: I love my iPad, I love my MacBook and I love being able to fly between continents in a matter of hours. But I also listen to the radio (CBC, naturally), I write with fountain pens, I refuse to buy pre-ground coffee, and, wouldn’t you know it, I love spending four hours on a weekend afternoon using my hands to make bread from scratch. Some new-fangled things are awesome, while other modern conveniences aren’t worth the trade-offs. Just because a skill is old doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

I want my daughter to know what real food tastes like: I have committed to making the smell of baking bread so routine and commonplace in our family home that my baby will grow up instinctively knowing what real bread is supposed to smell like. Raising a kid on quinoa smoothies and wheatgrass juice is paranoid-parenting overkill; they’ll hate you for making them eat that crap, and they’ll still chug Coca-Cola at their friends’ house once mommy and daddy are out of eyeshot. But every child should be able to make a sandwich with real bread, not just because it’s good for you, but because it tastes so damned amazing.

Because my bread is better: Don’t take this the wrong way, multinationals, but I can bake a loaf that’s as good or better than the stuff you mass produce. Even more alarming, I’ve had enough dry, poorly made “artisanal” breads to know that spending $5.95 on a loaf made by an expert baker doesn’t guarantee a decent bread experience.

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