My diet during the COVID-19 stay-at-home has been an erratic blend of dishes that get thoughtful love and care mixed with dishes that hardly earn that title, including the likes of frozen pizza rolls and cans of chili. I've got one package of spaghetti sauce from last year's garden left in the freezer for a rainy day, and although the pantry is stocked with nonperishables, I'm eagerly awaiting the first home delivery of produce from a local CSA today.
But something else is happening in my kitchen during the pandemic, and I hear tell it's happening all over the place: We're baking bread.
The high desert climate is hell on bread. For a small household of people who are often out of the house for at least one meal per day, we found in pre-pandemic life that it's hard to consume a loaf of store-bought bread before it dries out. So having bread at home is an abnormal event unless it's from Santo Domingo's outdoor market during a gas stop. Home baked bread, though? That's like mythical unicorn status.
Not anymore. The loaf rising in a bowl now represents the fifth time I've gone through the roughly 2 gajillion steps involved in getting sourdough from the starter to the counter since COVID-19 hit the state. In the midst of breaking news about new infection numbers and working bad math problems about revenue and costs, I pounced on an invitation to obtain a fabled yeast starter. How often do we get the chance to try new things that are so risk-free? How frequent are "first times" for something as we edge past middle age?
The social distancing exchange wherein I dropped off a jar of apricot chutney and picked up a tiny container of gooey, bubbling, living manna went well. Up next, the internet, where you'll find no shortage of recipes, advice, podcasts and pictures about whatever bread you want to try. While I was reading, the top popped off the starter on the counter. Indeed, it's alive!
The first set of instructions for artisan sourdough I tried was 11 pages long, but I whittled it down to four and, on the third loaf, printed them out and attached the paper to the oven hood with a magnet. I found it helped me to make notes about the time I started each step. Plus, I set a timer so that if I was hunkered in listening to hour two of a gubernatorial press conference, I could break away to perform the required "stretch and pull" without missing a beat.
When the loaves finally come out of the oven, whether they're perfectly caramelized and make what seasoned bakers call "the bread music," or they emerge a little tough on the bottom and pale on the top, the smell alone seems to comfort. Then there's the slathering with jam, the dipping in chili (the Texas kind), and the melting of butter. Words cannot come close.
Turns out, we are not the only ones. This bread baking craze is apparently part of being together alone. Taking the better part of two days to complete a simple project and then enjoying its nutrition and taste seems like the kind of self care we can manage—even if there were Totino's three-meats and a party sized bag of M&Ms on either side of the affair.
And I don't think this is one of those Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon discussions, where once you start thinking about something, you notice it everywhere. I am pretty sure bread is just everywhere right now. Even Outside magazine published a piece about bread last week. It's the most inside thing I can think of.
Thanks to social media, I've seen good looking loaves from a bit of the starter that I passed along, now living in Bellamah. A journalist I know in California tried something that ended up flat and burned. But the photo of her laughing about it made me laugh, too. Raton author Sharon Niederman made her first loaf of sourdough from scratch without starter, writing "nothing but air, water, flour, and salt. This dough really wanted to become bread." My brother in St. Louis put a cross in the top of his loaf on Good Friday.
Then there's my bread angel. Not only did local therapist and exceptional home cook Naja Harrell Druva hook it up with the starter, but she happily answered my texted questions about every step of the process. I felt fearless and supported enough to keep trying.
"Bread is this powerful metaphor for survival…I don't know what's going to happen in just about any aspect of my life," she writes. "But today I have bread, and bread enough for tomorrow."