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2006-12-29 - 3:46 p.m. first loaf....

One of my goals for this holiday was to bake my first loaf of bread. For years, I have listened to my German friends complain about the tastelessness of bread in the New World. Actually, it was specifically "American bread," but as I've moved on to a new North American country, I have heard the criticism expanded to the northerly neighbo(u)r...

It is true. In the words of Henry Miller:

"You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread."

Some of us grew up rolling Wonderbread into tight, white little balls. So the bread was darned entertaining, if tasteless. When I was a little girl on a farm in southern Illinois, my mother took me to the Klenkees - where we picked up our local eggs - and then to the milk store - where we picked up our local milk in glass bottles - and then down to the Bunny Store - the local bread maker, where we picked up the Bunny Bread. I still remember the distinctive little cartoon rabbit on the label.

Sometimes I was treated to a Hostess apple pie, but in retrospect, I don't think I was ever treated to good bread. The beauty and tragedy of this story is that I didn't know. I didn't know how wonderful bread could taste. How do you know you are missing something if you've never had it in the first place?

Contrary to what my European friends tell me, there IS excellent bread in the USA. It's just much harder to find. When I was a grad student, I found the wonderful local bakery. It was probably not quite on par with the bread nirvana I experienced in Germany and France, but it was good. When I moved to NYC, it didn't take long for me to find a fantastic source of whole wheat breakfast rolls, which served as an occasional (expensive) treat. I think the difference between the old and new worlds is abundance and price. It is relatively easy to find good, cheap bread in Europe (although even in Europe these days, very few places still bake their bread on site.) In North America, you simply have to look a little more for the select few places that provide you with the taste of nirvana.

After several false starts, we have certainly found a couple of acceptable loaves for K here in Vancouver (because really, he is the true bread critic in the family. How could someone who grew up on something called "bunny bread" develop a discerning taste??) But seriously, this bread is priced as if it were GOLD! It's pretty darned expensive!

And anyway, after hearing about bread for several months - too much sugar. not enough wheat. too expensive. is there a dark sourdough??? - I have decided that I have enough input to know how to make a loaf of bread that even K will enjoy. And I have decided that I want to be able to produce a little taste of nirvana myself.

Anyone out there who bakes bread knows that it is a lesson in trial and error. And so I contemplated keeping a "bread diary" for this effort. In fact, I was fully prepared to meet with Thomas Hood's concept of leavened disaster:

“Who hath not met with home-made bread,
A heavy compound of putty and lead.”

I studied, and read. And learned a few tricks. I conjured up my established dictionary of K's likes and dislikes. I recalled my step-father's belabored and beloved process of making the Christmas potato rolls. And I remember my own favorite flavorings. And oh! I can happily report that my first, experimental loaf would make Robert Browning proud:

"If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”

It was a wonderful little whole wheat french loaf spiced with rosemary and olive oil, and some coarse salt sprinkled on the outside. K-tested, K-approved.

I see that I will need to prepare many, MANY loaves to keep up with K's intake levels, but I have indeed discovered the joys of kneading dough between your fingers. The tiny little romantic in me feels somehow connected with an age-old feels vaguely biblical.

And it tastes AWESOME!

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