Baking bread is hard work, especially for novices. You’ve got to start from the beginning — with YouTube videos. But videos can be misleading. They won’t tell you that if the yeast didn’t turn frothy, the bread would not be ideal.
So far, I have made three attempts at baking bread. Two of those yielded a glutenous disaster that even my dog found objectionable. This was not even your complex artisan baguette. I eventually got the birds in the garden to make a meal of it, thus salvaging the crumbs of my pride.
I wouldn’t count cooking among my strengths. So, in all these years, I didn’t take to baking bread. Not when I acquired my first oven; not when the lockdowns happened; not even when Instagram posts about culinary triumphs of newly minted bakers went viral. Then, one day, in one of those life defining moments, I declared, “Let’s make some bread”.
A few weeks earlier I had a terrible case of food poisoning. Of course, bread had nothing to do with it. But when I began to reevaluate my food choices, bread seemed like the easy target to tick off the outsource list. I clearly got the memo late. More than two years ago the world took up breadmaking as a hobby.
It is easy to be drawn into the charmed life of a home baker. A commune tends to form around the culinary protagonist. The WhatsApp groupies, the crusty sceptics, and the hungry hopefuls circle around and watch the magician pull out that loaf of magic from the oven. Now that families bake together, the ancient culinary art has come out as non-binary.
There’s the science behind it. The measurement and proofing have the rigors of German precision engineering; the biology of the yeast feasting on sugar and water to produce the precise volume of gas. The kneading causes the twin proteins glutenin and gliadin to combine and form longer and stronger gluten strands. You need to do some tests for the moment of truth. Did you try the volume test or the touch test or the poke test? Did the dough rise to the occasion?
As your kitchen turns into a science lab, you need the right lab equipment. My friend, a brilliant baker, cautioned me against the automatic bread maker that does almost everything, from dough to loaf. I guess that’s no fun, especially when authenticity is in question. I went looking for the more modest dough mixer, which turned out to be a rather imposing machine. I wasn’t ready for it. Unfortunately, my husband felt like we had crossed the Rubicon. There was no turning back.
The dough mixer now occupies my kitchen counter as though it is the greatest invention since sliced bread. With its countless accessories the machine looks daunting enough, and by some stretch of imagination could qualify as a manufacturing unit or at least a 3-D printer.
Many people bake off their miseries and vouch for that spiritual moment when they are completely in tune with themselves. We search for answers through the process of mixing, kneading, rising, kneading again, and baking. Perhaps, the mindfulness stems from the precision, which needs you to be completely present. Baking tends to make us better versions of ourselves. Not to forget the tangible reward at the end.
But that spiritual feeling refuses to happen when you are covered in flour, your kitchen looks like a warzone and your impertinent dough has a mind of its own. My husband and I jostled to get a peek at the dough getting kneaded — gladiatorial style — by the hook in the mixer. The newbies must perform the bake waltz, spinning back to peek inside the oven every five minutes; like a child who, as soon as the plane takes off, starts enquiring, “Are we there yet?”.
After attempt no. 2, when the entire loaf was polished off, hubris took over. With my outsized self-image of a baking ninja, I decided to go off-script when trying my hand at the Viennese bread. You don’t do that; not on attempt no 3. In the aftermath, the kitchen had a hellish vibe of a crime scene. Of course, a crime had been committed. The bread was flat, its core was uncooked. In the saga of trial and error, error had become the ultimate breadwinner.
Yet the smell of fresh bread brought back memories of my boarding school where bread was made on an industrial scale. A brick wall covered in soot, dotted with pigeonholes packed with baking tins, and the smell of fresh bread wafting through our classrooms. I continue to bake to relive that memory. My dog continues to bear the brunt of my baking projects, until I have my masterpiece, light on the inside, crisp on the outside.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies. She has co-founded climate tech startup NurtureAI. She has authored a self-help book ‘Pole Pole Kilimanjaro: A Little Extraordinary in an Ordinary Woman's Life’. She tweets at @shaliniverma
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