The town I grew up in only had a half dozen restaurants, and I remember when Subway came to town. I was super excited because it made me feel very suburban, and I was in junior high and going through that phase where you want so desperately to be from Anywhere Else. My family went, stood in line, designed our sandwiches, and paid. My dad—a cheapskate by basically all accounts—was not just unhappy at his bill, he was downright depressed. “For sandwiches.” He kept saying, shaking his head. “I could build better sandwiches for a week for what it cost for these.”
None of us said anything about it (because it was pretty typical), but a few days later, lo and behold, in our fridge a huge hoagie sandwich came into being, and Dad was right. It was delicious.
“Why do people eat at restaurants?” I remember asking. “If we can make food like this at home?”
My Dad replied with a term so vile that I do not think I can write here without some Mommy group trying to boycott me, but let’s just say that it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me at the time. That’s how my Dad communicates, though, in that Buddha-On-The-Mountaintop way, where it’s almost always a metaphor and it might take years—years—and one night I will wake up and say, “Oh.”
Wait a minute, you may be saying. This a post about baking bread! What are we even talking about?
I’m getting to it, promise.
Some of you may remember that when I got married, my cooking repertoire consisted of cereal, soft drinks, and the occasional pasta dish (with canned sauce and the world’s cheapest cheese). When I got pregnant, I knew that I was going to have to figure some things out. Because, though it was a very confusing time for me, I did manage to understand that although babies fall under the category of Complicated Machines, at the very least, one thing I was fairly confident that I could figure out was how to feed them. So I taught myself to cook.
And some of you may remember that I could not breastfeed, which was a huge downer, and that Maren had sensitivities to both dairy and soy, so we had to buy her seriously the World’s Most Ridiculous Formula. The first time I bought it, I didn’t even care what it cost because finally the kid was eating and sleeping for the first time in her young life. But about the hundredth time I bought it, I was wondering if it was so expensive because in order to make it they were having to milk Magical Formula Fairies from the faraway land of Similac.
And a few months into this, the formula was recalled because there were too many insect parts in it. So the company was all, “Hey guys, better stop buying this crazy expensive powder that your Baby needs to survive until we can figure out how to get the insect parts back to a reasonable amount.”
I felt so betrayed. Like, I’m basically paying a second mortgage on this damn formula, is it possible that we could get, I don’t know, maybe a version with NO insect parts?
And as it turns out, No. No you cannot. Because, as I learned more about processed foods, there is no such thing as baby formula, baby cereal, baby food, what-have-you that does not have insect parts, rat feces, human hair, etc, in it. In fact, any food that is made in a factory has an acceptable amount of these things in them, and typically the only time a company will issue a recall is when someone has gotten sick or when an inspector sees a problem with their own two eyes. And by that time—by the time Maren’s formula was recalled—who knows how much awfulness she/we have eaten. First I had to feel guilty that my breastmilk wasn’t getting the job done, and then I got to feel guilty that to replace that milk I was feeding her ground up grasshoppers and rodent poop.
Ever since then—so for almost five years—I’ve done everything I can to feed my family whole food, real food, food that I prepare in my kitchen, myself, with my own two hands. I promise I am not THAT LADY– Maren and Gavin have had plenty of neon orange sticky nasty Macaroni and Cheese in their lifetimes. I’m just saying that I do what I can. I made Maren’s baby food, and refused to put Gavin on formula (even when I had to fire a pediatrician over the issue. I didn’t make as much baby food for Gavin, largely because he came out of the womb as a first grader and graduated right from breastmilk to table foods, and I imagine that any day now he will graduate from table foods to consuming entire convenience stores, parking lot and all).
But the other thing that I discovered along this journey, besides all the insect-part stuff, is that industries make money by convincing us that we need them, and most of the time we don’t. Before I was a mom, I think I saw approximately ninety bazillion ads about how I would never possibly make it through my first year of parenting if I didn’t have a freezer full of Pizza Rolls, Ovalteen, and fish sticks (all things that my kids have never had, by the way). The ads are designed to make us feel like we are failures and our children will end up as serial killers that hate us if we serve them canned spaghetti sauce that does not rest on top of the pile of spaghetti, the way that the other canned spaghetti sauce does, or that the embarrassment of being presented with a piece of fruit instead of an Oreo cookie may cause them to grow a third eye. Industries have convinced us that we are too busy, too stressed, and frankly, too stupid, to do some of these things ourselves, and in doing so, they have crippled us. We have largely forgotten how to do some of these things—things that our grandmothers literally would have perished without doing for themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a martyr who is seeking out first prize in the over-all Mompetition. Really, at the core, I’m just a kid from the 90s looking for a machine to rage against. And I found that it was really empowering to be able to take some knowledge back and remember that most of this junk that we’re paying someone else to do for us we could do ourselves. And one of the things that is very easy, so laughably simple that it makes me sick that I ever DIDN’T do it, is making my own bread.
I am not here to debate with you whether or not wheat is healthy (it isn’t). That’s a battle for another day. My family eats a lot of bread—my kids have a sandwich at lunch every day. My husband is a German, and as such he often will eat bread with his bread. He and my son make everything into a sandwich (Seriously. Everything.). My brother-in-law wrote a book entirely devoted to sandwiches. We are bread people.
Nevertheless, I am by no means a bread-making expert. I can make fancy bread/rolls, and I feel like I’m pretty good at it, not that I’ll be going to any county fairs anytime soon. But what I really wanted to do today was write a blog post for people who say that they can’t make their own bread because they don’t have time or don’t know how. Because you do have time, and oh-my-gawd it’s so easy that I promise you, you definitely already possess the skills to do it.
Here is my process:
1) Get a big bowl. Sometimes I use a spaghetti pot if I haven’t done the dishes for awhile.
2) Put in that bowl: a literal dash of salt, 3 tsps of yeast, 3 cups of flour, and 1 ½ cups of water.
- The water should be warm, but don’t get too worried about that. As long as it isn’t super hot or super cold.
3) Mix that shit up.
- Don’t get too worried about this, either. As long as everything in the bowl is together and wet. (Note that if you are fancy, this is the time to add fancy ingredients, like caraway seeds, goat cheese, basil, oats, what-have-you. But if you are not fancy, and usually, I am not either, then just leave it)
4) Cover the bowl and leave it on your counter.
- For real.
5) The next day at about the same time (or a little sooner, or a little later. It doesn’t really matter), turn your oven on to 450 and let it sit there for half an hour.
6) When the half-hour is up, go get the dough out of the bowl.
- It will smell yeasty and be very sticky. I usually sprinkle some flour over the top of it and then pull it out by working it away from the bowl and into the center. But don’t get too worried about that, either. I have had my four year old do this step and everything turns out fine, it’s just that afterwards your counters and your four year old will also smell yeasty and be very sticky.
7) Put the dough into a loaf pan.
- If you are lacking a loaf pan, pull the dough into a roundish ball, like when you were a kid and played with playdough. Set it on a cookie sheet, or a pizza pan, or even back into the same spaghetti pot (as long as it’s oven safe). Some people prefer this, because the loaf comes out looking like one you might have picked up at the bakery. My favorite, if I am going to do it this way, is to throw down some corn meal on our pizza stone and then sprinkle a little more on top of the Dough Blob before baking. The effect is very Fancy.
8) Put it in the oven for about 35-40 minutes.
9) Enjoy the smells.
Pull it out and let it cool, because it is very tasty but it is also very hot. The best way to enjoy this bread, in my opinion, is with real butter and also raw honey. But don’t take my word for it, because I’m basically a poster child for real butter and raw honey, and would eat those two things on pretty much anything. Seriously.
This will make a small loaf. In the summer, I do this every day during nap time. While one loaf is baking, I get the other one started. During the school year, I make two or three loaves on Saturday (that is, I double or triple this recipe) and bake them on Sunday, and we usually have some heels left over to throw to the birds, turn into bread crumbs or croutons, or feed them to Gavin, because he is like a human garbage disposal, will eat anything, and is not super convinced that food needs to taste good in order to be consumable. You can also turn these loaves into soup bowls by dusting off your Playdough skills and shaping them a little bit.
Fresh loaves don’t last very long, so you’ll have to eat it quickly. Some people get annoyed that fresh bread/pastries don’t last as long as the stuff you buy at the grocery store, but remember that the reason that crap is lasting longer is because it’s full of chemicals. Like formaldehyde.
There are other ways to make bread—obviously—and this is actually not even my preferred method. I actually really like to get elbow deep in a nice soft dough, slap it around a little, and show it who’s boss. But that way does take more time, as well as a little more instruction on technique. And I think that is why it became so easy for industries to be all, “You can’t do this! YOU NEED US! Please, eat this cardboard tasting Bread-ish product and pay us for the privilege!”
So, there you go. If you are a person who has thought in the past that you can’t do something like this, please try it this week and see how it goes. And most especially, if you are someone who knows how to do something else that I don’t know how to do, please write me a blog post about it so that I can learn how to do more stuff. Because I feel like I should be getting Mother of the Year for all the cooking I do, but my kids are decidedly not impressed. Time to learn a new skill.