October 15, 2015

Bread baking day with Gramma

My Gramma is a special lady and I am more than blessed to still have her in my life.  She's 80 years young, feisty and full of spunk.  I've never known anyone who posessed the kind of joy she exudes.  It's something that oozes out of her and you can literally feel her joy when you're near her. 

A few weeks ago, Gramma spent the day at my house teaching me how to bake homemade bread  It's something she still does regularly and she wants to pass on the bread-baking tradition to her grandchildren so that when she is gone someday, we can bake bread and remember her when we take a fresh batch out of the oven.

Now, Gramma does not believe in bread machines.  She doesn't believe in electric stand mixers for that matter.  Every part of the process is completely done by hand and she wouldn't have it any other way.  She says it's the only way to make sure the love gets in, and the love is what makes it taste so delicious in the first place.  That, and her "seasoned" bread pans.  She saw how shiny and unused mine looked and proceeded to laugh at me.  Aparently, I have a lot of bread-baking to do in order to have my pans make the varsity team.

To bake Gramma's famous bread, she starts with 5 cups of very hot water and two packages of quick rising yeast  After that is stirred together, she puts sugar into the center of her hand until it looks just right and pours that in, and follows the same technique with salt.  She said our hands were about the same size, so my sugar and salt ratios should match hers.  I don't know what to tell the rest of you whose hands are of varying sizes.  But, she blew my "baking has to be exact measurements" thing out of the water, because she didn't measure a single ingredient after the water.
She adds "about" a cup of shortening to the water mixture and gets in there with her hands to break up some of the shortening.  And then the laborious task of adding flour begins.  She does not measure her flour, but keeps adding it until the dough feels just right.  I think she may have used close to five pounds of flour, but I'm not completely certain.  Gramma says that depending on humidity or temperature you may need more or less flour, which is why it's important to keep going until it feels right rather than concern yourself with recipes and measurements.  She let me feel the dough when she thought enough flour had been added.  The dough feels smooth and just slightly sticky.
 See?  Joy.  She is the jolliest woman I know.
When baking bread, Gramma goes by feel and texture and smell, relying on her instincts to let her know what the dough is needing.  With years of experience, her motions are fluid and familiar.  Baking bread is second nature to her and I delighted in watching her work, her aged hands and arms kneading and working the dough.   After this long process of adding flour and working the dough, she puts the bowl in an unwarmed oven covered with a towel and lets it rise for about an hour.

"Seasoned" bread pans folks.
After that hour, she puts a small amount of shortening on her hands and kneads the dough.  Then back into the oven it goes for another round of rising.  That is repeated again. 
 Dough perfection.
The third time, the dough is separated into loaves and put into her seasoned pans in an unwarmed oven to let those rise another 45 minutes - more or less depending on how quickly they rise.
And finally, after all the flour and the rising and waiting and kneading, you get to turn on the oven to 350 degrees, and cook for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. 
My house smelled like bread heaven.  Gluten divinity.  Something very godly and holy as five loaves of homemade bread baking in the oven would smell like.  Tommy eagerly waited, as did I, for the bread to finally finish.
To Gramma's surprise, my shiny new loaf pan that has been used maybe three times ever to make something silly like pumpkin bread, produced the largest, most beautiful loaf of the bunch.  She had never seen such a thing and she had to admit that perhaps my pans weren't so bad after all.  She did say though that if it was such a perfect loaf now, imagine what it would be like in ten years  She has quite a life expectancy of my bread pans.
Then the best part came.  The slicing, and buttering and the eating of the warm fresh-out-of-the-oven bread.  It tasted just like my childhood winter breaks that were spent at her house.  When it was gray and weary outside, but cozy and warm inside.  It tasted like all of the memories I have of my Great-Grandma, how she always wore matching sweatpants and sweatshirts, and would scold us for sneaking too many cookies out of her cookie jar.  And it tasted just like the love she had put into it, and I am convinced it had been made any other way, it wouldn't have turned out the same.
I don't know how many more Saturdays I'll get to have with my Gramma that get to look like this.  Each time I get a moment, a whole day like this one, or any sweet minute of time to make memories and enjoy her, I tuck them away safely into my heart.  I am grateful for her presence, grateful that I have her, and grateful for the here and the now and the new memories we're creating at 80 and 34. 

The best thing ever really is a slice of homeade bread fresh out of the oven.  The only thing to top it, is sharing that sliced bread with your Gramma.

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