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Give It A Whirl

I did something last week I thought I’d never do. I made bread. I understand that to some, it's not a big deal. After all, it’s been a staple of the human diet since, well, probably forever.

And, with a recipe (with very few ingredients) I learned from some friends of mine, it can be a simple process.

But as someone once said, “Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.” (I’m not dreaming that; someone did say that at some point, right?)

As you can well imagine, when an old dog like me tries a new trick that involves things like flour (which tends to migrate to every crack and crevice of the house as soon as the bag is opened) and yeast (something that both fascinates and scares me), things can – and probably will – happen; not all of them good.

Anyway, recently I had occasion to work with some folks who are passionate about baking, and they introduced me to a recipe they assured me was foolproof. And telling me something is “foolproof” is like telling me “You can’t miss it” after you give me directions to your house, which is six miles away, and an hour later, I find myself 30 miles in the opposite direction, on the wrong road.

In a different county.

But, because I like a good challenge, I’ve loved bread all my life (Who doesn’t?) and lately I’ve been on a kick to try new things, I thought to myself, “What the hell … let’s give it a whirl.”

As I already mentioned, the recipe was simple, consisting of four ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. “That’s only two more ingredients than I use to make cereal … or peanut butter toast,” I thought to myself as I read the recipe.

After gathering and measuring the stuff, at times pretending I was hosting my own baking show (I was alone at the time), I was off to the races, adding and mixing, mixing and adding, until the dough was consistently “gloppy,” the specific word used by the recipe’s owner.

Within minutes, I had a four-pound mass of off-white dough sitting in a large mixing bowl. I felt good knowing I’d completed this phase without issue (other than covering my shirt with copious amounts of “residual” flour).

At that point, I knew the easy part was over, for me anyway. Now, the real work would begin, first for the dough, and then, for me. For me, the next phase was to wait while the yeast worked with the other ingredients to help the dough rise and do whatever else it does. (I’m fascinated by the science of it, but it stills confuses me when an expert tries to explain what, how and when yeast does what it does.)

For the record, I’m a terrible waiter. (To clarify, I’m terrible at waiting for things; I don’t know if I’m a terrible “waiter” – one who waits tables at a restaurant – because I’ve never, well, “waited.") For this recipe, it told me I needed (as opposed to “kneaded,” which by the way was not a required step for this recipe) to wait “at least two hours” but if possible, I should let the dough sit overnight for maximum bread-baking power.

As a terrible waiter and knowing I could wait “until tomorrow” to finish my bread, I set an alarm for exactly two hours, at which time I raced into the kitchen to get the dough formed and into the oven.

I should also mention that in that two-hour period, I checked the dough no less than 350 times – each time, sliding on a thin layer of flour that had spilled onto the floor during the preliminary steps -- to see if it was progressing according to the recipe.

It was. Again, I felt good.

Then, like a kid who waited by the edge of the pool for exactly one hour after he ate so he wouldn’t puke or drown or sink or break out in a terrible rash (or whatever not waiting an hour after eating before going in the water was supposed to do to you), I plunged my hands into the gloppy goodness (which in reality is the part I dislike the most and the very thing that has kept me from baking all these years) so I could start shaping and forming my first-ever loaf of home-baked bread.

I have “issues,” not the least of which include: a fear of heights, being scratched by an infected monkey, open water (with or without the “one-hour” rule), sink holes and being buried alive. Another fear I have is wet, sticky dough. OK, I guess “fear” isn’t really the word I'd use. I just don’t like the way it feels: like a yeasty, doughy set of handcuffs.

Thing is, I’ve watched seasoned bakers pull it, knead and throw it around without any issue, like they have dough-repellent hands. Not me. By the time I finally wrestled this one-pound chunk of glop to the countertop and formed it into something that resembled a short, fat, waterski (I was going for “baguette”), I had dough between my fingers, under my nails, on my shoe and in my eye (due to a mid-process “itch”).

Exhausted and nearly defeated, I slid the bread-ski into the oven and again, waited impatiently, an expectant, first-time “bakery parent.” The recipe told me to check the bread at 20 minutes, so I did. (Full disclosure, I also checked it at 10.) It looked good, but not quite brown enough. So, I gave it 10 more minutes. Still, not quite what I was looking for.

Then, about seven minutes later, after all the work, the waiting and the wondering when or if this would ever happen, I opened the oven and pulled out a beautiful (if not in form, at least in function) loaf of artisan bread, my first. (Admit it, you thought this story would end in despair and failure, didn’t you?)

It was brown and crusty, and if you looked past its shape, you wouldn’t have known it was baked by a first-timer, one with so many issues, not the least of which is a lifelong fear (or at least frustration with) dough.

Minutes later, covered in flour, with one eye “doughed” half shut, I sat at the kitchen table and tore off a piece. It was, in a word, fantastic; crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, just like the recipe said it would be if I simply did what I was told.

And while some like their bread with butter, preserves or dipped in olive oil and garlic, I enjoyed this first loaf, this new adventure in my life, on its own merits, just as it presented itself to me; no spreads, toppings, bells or whistles.

Just like the folks probably enjoyed it – or at least subsisted on it -- hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In the days since, I’ve baked several more loaves, and each time, the process gets easier, and my loaves are looking less like sporting goods and more like the breads you find in a bakery.

Why do I tell you all this? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because these loaves of bread and this new experience brought me satisfaction. It also let me know that it’s never too late to try something new, and if we like it and we do it again and again, we’ll get better at it.

Or not, but so what? I’ll never be a great baker, and that’s fine. But a couple weeks ago, I was inspired, and for once, I acted on that inspiration.

I thought, What the hell … let’s give it a whirl.”

Suddenly, I have a new “thing,” a new activity, a new “trick.” Something fun that resulted in something tasty.

And now, I do know what I’m telling you all this. It’s because it made me realize that I should say “What the hell … let’s give it a whirl” more often when things inspire me. Because when I do, while I may fail in the endeavor, the endeavor never fails me.

© 2020 David R. Haznaw

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