Last week’s post was about my father – here’s one about my mother…
My mother was always looking for ways to save money. Although she had little spare time, with a job and five girls to feed, she decided to bake her own bread. And it would be healthy bread, at that. First, she went to the grocer’s, where she hunted down the wholemeal flour she planned to use. She might have unearthed some wheat bran, too. Next, she found fresh yeast at the baker’s. I was surprised that he sold it to her. After all, wouldn’t he be losing her business if she did her own baking? As it turned out, no.
She followed the recipe she’d found in the newspaper. My mother had no interest in women’s magazines, considering them an unnecessary luxury, but in those days the paper ran a regular column for housewives, which included recipes. We children were particularly impressed with the enormous American strawberry shortcake she made one summer. With such a large family, my mother would double any recipe as a matter of course, but the strawberry shortcake was calculated for six people already, so there was plenty left, since she’d made enough for twelve. Even the next day, after the strawberries had softened into a dull pink instead of a firm bright red, and the juice had seeped into the now soggy shortcake, it was delicious.
The bread, on the other hand… My mother mixed the flour with the yeast, which had been left to grow with some sugar, in warm water. The smell reminded me of the brewery we drove past occasionally, whose aroma of fermentation announced itself in the surrounding streets and seeped through the car windows.
She kneaded that dough and slapped it around the small Formica-topped kitchen table. I hoped she was getting her frustration, anxiety and aggression out of her system. She certainly gave it her best shot.
Then the dough was left to rise, in a mixing bowl covered with a tea towel, for a couple of hours. I would sneak up on it from time to time to see how it was doing. My disappointment at its very slow growth was pooh-poohed by my mother.
“It’ll be fine, you’ll see,” she said. “Once it’s baked.”
This is where I think she made her mistake. Once the dough had doubled in size – about four hours later – she began to knead it again. I protested.
“It says to do this right here,” she said, pointing a floury finger at the recipe. “It’s to get rid of the air bubbles.”
“But the bubbles are my favorite bit.”
My mother gave me a quizzical look.
“And it’ll be hours before it’s ready,” I concluded. By now the smell of yeast was beginning to make me feel ravenous.
“And then,” my mother, ignoring my remarks, went on firmly. “I put it in the loaf pans and leave it to rise a bit longer before we bake it.”
This was much too long a process for me. I sauntered off to read a book. What seemed, and might have been, hours later, the smell of baking bread came stealing through to my bedroom. I sniffed the air appreciatively and put down my book.
In the kitchen, my mother was taking the loaves out of the oven, tipping them out of the pans, and knocking at the bottom of each with her knuckle.
“Does that sound hollow to you?” she said. “If it does, it means they’re done.”
I couldn’t hear anything at all. But I’d waited long enough.
“Definitely,” I said. “Completely hollow.”
My mother put the loaves, right side up, on the wire cooling rack. I looked at them, surprised. They weren’t much bigger than they had before they went into the oven. And hadn’t there been a lot more dough before she got rid of the bubbles?
“Can I try some?” I asked.
“Well…” My mother had picked up the recipe and was squinting at it in the fading afternoon light. “It says to wait until it’s cool. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
I stomped off, back to my book.
When I wandered back into the kitchen in response to my mother’s call, she was sawing at the brick loaf with a determined air. I wondered if the bread knife was blunt.
“It’s rather a thick crust,” she explained, though I hadn’t actually asked.
When she handed me a slice, liberally buttered, I noticed it was considerably heavier than the shop-bought bread. It was chewier, too. But the flavor, though not very bread-like for someone who loved white bread, was pretty good. So what if it looked and felt like a doorstop? My mother named it Punishment Loaf, and made it every so often. But it never felt like punishment to me.