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March 11, 2009

When the Kitchen Calls

in baking,nostalgia,writing

The other night for whatever reason I got to feeling a little lonely. I arrived home — my apartment, after a weekend’s minor cleaning frenzy, was full of freshly-laundered, hang-dried clothes, which is one of my very favorite smells besides, of course, a chocolate cake just taken out of the oven — a bit earlier than usual and it felt even earlier than that because of the time change. There were hours of daylight still stretching ahead of me but the afternoon outside was colder than it looked; I looked at my running shoes and sighed, Not today. I was tempted for a moment to watch a Netflix, though I had soup to make and other things to tend to, but that felt unbearably decadent so I refrained. There was a tidy pile of neglected New Yorkers on the hall table which I guiltily avoided (I do really want to read them); there was a stack of library books with fast-approaching due dates. I had plenty of entertainment options and yet I felt a bit adrift.

It was clear, then, I’d have to bake. I know. I know, I know. Enough with the baking already! But I’d come across a recipe on the lovely Wednesday Chef‘s site that looked like something I might want to try — strange, really, because it was for a loaf of bread and I don’t often bake bread — and it felt like just the right thing to do to ease my way into the evening.

For Christmas, my friend Emily (technically she’s my brother’s girlfriend but as we’ve hung out when he hasn’t even been in the country I think we’re friends in our own right) gave me a little jug of Maine maple syrup that’s been atop my fridge ever since. I don’t make too many pancakes, and though I’ve been meaning to dig out my perfect waffle recipe I just haven’t gotten around to it lately. So it was quite perfect that this recipe called for maple syrup. I’m sure it lasts a long time but in the spirit of “Eating Down the Fridge (and Pantry)” I decided to put it to use rather than let it linger until next Christmas.

As I turned the dough around in my hands the other night I thought about her — and my brother, too — wondering what they had made for dinner. As I’ve mentioned, when I visited them in Maine last fall we ate extraordinarily well: vegetables from the garden, some eaten straight from the the vine while swatting mosquitoes in the humidity; french toast breakfasts with lots of coffee and good fried potatoes; sandwiches perfectly made on delicious bread; eggs scrambled just so. Though they’re no longer living on the farm I’m sure their daily meals are no less satisfying. I wondered if they’d made a stew, or a roast chicken, or maybe a vegetable-heavy vegetarian main dish, and what kind of vegetables are even available right now in Maine. Has the snow melted? Are signs of spring slowly appearing?

We’re never truly alone in the kitchen even as we may slice a squash in quiet solitude to saute in olive oil and basil. Almost every single thing I cook reminds me of a place or of someone I miss. This could be a reason why those of us who love to cook are so drawn to it (and, conversely, perhaps a reason those who don’t enjoy it abstain). As I punched down the dough and kneaded it into a silky, elastic ribbon in my own small San Francisco kitchen I was, for a little while, back in that tiny, cluttered kitchen along the New England coast. I thought about how nice it would be if we’d all been cooking together: me patting down the bread to tuck into a warm corner for its second rise, Emily pulling a pan of roasted potatoes out of the oven, Kurt cooking down some greens on the stove. We’d probably be nibbling from a cheese plate and sipping a glass of wine or two …

I missed them. I was glad to be baking that bread.

I don’t bake bread too often but oh, really, I should. It smells so good while it’s baking and is the ultimate frugal way to obtain a fresh loaf, especially if you’re able to incorporate little-used ingredients (like that maple syrup). I was a bit nervous to see how this would turn out because my yeast had been in the fridge for quite awhile (luckily I remembered to bring it to room temperature) and it called for just white flour (I’m a whole grains kind of a girl for the most part) but I shouldn’t have worried. The bread was soft and redolent of maple syrup (but not too much). Its crust was perfect too, with just enough crunch to offset the deliciously tender crumb and pulled it all together. In short, it was exactly what I needed.

I ate a slice, quickly, after it came out of the oven, soft with heat and melting butter. I ate another with my lunch the next day. After my run, I smeared a slice with peanut butter and sighed happily through the dinner preparations with that bit of protein and comfort in my stomach. And then because I just couldn’t resist I ate another post-meal. (That, I must note, was a dinner: FIRST mashed potatoes perfectly buttered, baked tofu with peanut sauce, 1/2 head roasted cauliflower and asparagus; 2 glasses orange juice; THEN one slice homemade bread, toasted, with a little bit of butter and drizzled with lavender honey; AND one square dark chocolate.)

It’s chilly in the Bay Area — not cold by any real stretch of the imagination but chilly enough that I’m looking for excuses to turn on the oven and pull my warm sweaters out of the closet again. Spring is soon — so very soon though probably not soon enough for impatient me — but I fear it might be a cool one, as it often is here. No matter; there are good things on the horizon, including lots of visitors and trips out of the city, so I shan’t complain one bit. And did I mention? I have this lovely bread on my counter to warm my insides and soothe the missing just a little bit.

When the kitchen calls, it’s best to answer.

ps: Check out my guest post over at the Washington Post’s “A Mighty Appetite”!

Maple White Bread, via the wednesday chef

Makes 1 large loaf

1 cup milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 tablespoons sweet butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1 teaspoon sugar or maple sugar
1 egg beaten
4 cups (approximately) unbleached all-purpose flour

1. Place milk, maple syrup, butter and salt in a saucepan and scald. Allow to cool to lukewarm.

2. Dissolve yeast in warm water along with the sugar. Set aside for five minutes until the mixture becomes frothy. Transfer the milk mixture to a large bowl, stir in the yeast mixture and then stir in the egg.

3. Stir in two cups of the flour. Then add more flour about one-half cup at a time until a ball of dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for about eight minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place dough in an oiled bowl, turn the dough to oil on all sides, cover lightly and set aside to rise until doubled, about an hour.

4. Punch down dough, turn onto a lightly floured board and knead for another minute or so. Roll dough into a rectangle about nine by 12 inches, then roll tightly, jellyroll fashion, starting from the narrow side. Pinch the seam and ends closed. Fit the dough seam side down into a greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch baking pan.

5. Cover and set in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place bread in the oven and bake about 45 minutes, until well browned. Remove from pan and allow to cool freely on a rack before slicing.

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