One of my favorite childhood memories was coming home to the smell of baking bread. Mom made it a few times a year, and I can still taste its warmth as I placed a piece, laden with melting butter, in my mouth.
I was too young, or too unfocused, to ever consider asking her to teach me how to bake bread. Cooking wasn’t cool back then, and baking? That was even more dowdy, so, no thank you. Once, a few girlfriends and I tried baking pretzels during a junior high sleepover, with disastrous results. The highlight of the night was when Patty Foley made fun of her over-baked, hard-as-rock pieces, calling them “nuggets.” For some reason, we all thought this was hilarious. Ah, under-developed humor…
After a few attempts over the years, I’d resigned myself to the fact that my kneading skills were way down there with sewing and French braiding. Best to leave bread to the more capable hands of Eric or Emily, both of whom, fortunately, always rsvp-ed to our dinner invites with “What can I bring?”
For years, the KitchenAid standing mixer sat on the floor of the pantry, gathering dust. When we finally pulled it out of retirement, it had no attachments. Ugh. It is fascinating how highly skilled we are at removing vital pieces of appliances and storing them away, never to be found again.
As luck would have it, I came upon a mixing attachment, safely yet inexplicably tucked away in a cabinet nowhere near the kitchen in our New York apartment a few weeks later. So, two nights before Christmas eve, I decided to try to replicate Nana’s cinnamon twists, a favorite recipe from our childhood that Mom’s mom would ship to us every Christmas when we were kids. I didn’t have the actual recipe, so I googled “Swedish cinnamon twists” (Nana was Swedish). Nothing. I removed “Swedish,” and tons of recipes popped up. I picked “Grandma Billie’s Cinnamon Rolls,” probably because of the grandmother connection (http://www.recipegirl.com/2007/12/01/grandma-billies-cinnamon-rolls/). I poured the yeast in a warm cup of water and let that sit and bubble. I cracked three eggs (and a bit of shell) into the mixing bowl.
After mixing it all together, it was rising time. Draping a hand towel over the Yellow Ware bowl of dough filled me with Midge Larkworthy pride as I placed it gingerly on the floor in the parlor. Hey, the recipe said to place it in a warm spot. Old houses…
The risen dough the next morning was a sight to see. I pounded its center, yanked it out of its bowl and flattened it out into a very large rectangle. After dabbing it with soft butter, I sprinkled it with sugar, then brown sugar, then cinnamon. Then, instead of rolling the entire dough into a sushi-like coil, I cut it into strips and twisted them, Nana-style. Into the oven they went.
But I wasn’t done yet. The red Le Creuset on the stovetop beckoned me: “It’s time,” it whispered in its imperious French accent. “Fill me with your dough. It will be beautiful.” And if that wasn’t enough, “Everyone will be so impressed on Christmas eve!”
Fine. I emailed Eric for his Le Creuset recipe. No answer. Fine. I googled. A knead-free recipe popped up. Knead-free! Yay!
Now, to be fair, rising dough shouldn’t have to travel three hours in a car, and the front seat floor of an Audi All Road isn’t exactly the warmest spot, even with the heat directed there. But I had to make the drive home to Manhattan that afternoon, and having just made the dough was just poor planning. By the time Bertrand placed it on the kitchen counter in our apartment, it was hardened and flat. I draped the towel back over it and said, “Time of death: 6:45pm.”
Just kidding. I draped the towel over it and hoped for an early Christmas miracle. In lighter news, Bertrand surprised me with a kneading hook attachment! We would be rolling in the dough soon enough!
The next morning, the knead-free dough looked worse. I baked it anyway. Thirty minutes later, it looked exactly the same–only browner. As I started to sling it in the trash, Bertand stopped me. “Bring it! Let’s try it! If it tastes bad, we have crackers!” I dropped the rosemary hockey puck into a tote bag.
At Christmas eve dinner, the daring tried it. “It’s not bad,” Luke lied. “It’s chewy!” Marek smiled. Pass the crackers.
A few days later, Astrid perked up when she saw me searching for bread recipes. “Make Eli’s Sitka bread! It’s so good!” Minutes later, she was out the door and I had her boyfriend’s Alaskan recipe in my in box. “Will not disappoint!” she wrote above the recipe. And here it is, in all its hilariously vague glory. I especially love the vagueness of Step 5.
1. Mix 3.5 cups warm water with 3 tsp yeast, 4ish tsp sugar, a bit of honey, and 2/3 cup flour
2. wait around 2 hrs
3. mix in a little bit less than 1 tbsp salt. you can also add in spices and a dollop of olive oil at this point if you want
4. mix in flour until doughy. more liquidy dough makes for chewier bread. knead for a few minutes.
5. let rise in bowl
6. preheat oven to 420. Pour dough into pyrex (this should make 2-3 loaves) and let rise.
7. Bake for 30 mins
I’ve made Eli’s bread (no relation) twice already. Astrid was right; it has not disappointed. I added about a half cup of loose dried rosemary to Step 3 and that “healthy dollop” of olive oil is about four healthy dollops. The amount of flour “mixed in” in Step 4 is quite a lot, even for those who prefer chewy. I just keep pouring it into the mixer, but I’d say it’s roughly six cups. The charm of Eli’s recipe is how much it relies on instinct, which, in my opinion, all cooking should be. Measurements are the calculus of recipes. You might hate them, but you need them. At least for the first try, or when you’re sharing– which is what recipes are made for.
I forgot to tell you about Pete’s Nana rolls. I’ll try them again, now that I’ve got the kneading hook. Maybe Easter.
Really touching story. I remember smell of the bred from my childhood, but it was from bread my grandmother brought eraly mornings from market.