right to the bread basket

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When I was little, my Papa would play this game with me where we would have pretend boxing matches, and as I would land fake punches on him left and right, he would say things like, “she’s tougher than a $2 steak!” “ouch, right in the kisser!” or “ouuffff, right to the breadbasket” if the “blow” was near his stomach. Of course, I delighted in my ability to KO someone many decades my senior and much bigger than me, and I would giggle and dance around, fancying myself Muhammad Ali, until my gram made us stop. I still sometimes call the stomach area the breadbasket, though, and I always think about that when I make bread.

Yes, making bread. I started baking bread again. Years ago, I became obsessed with bread baking, made my own starter, and baked loaves upon loaves for many months. I learned how to score, use a scale to be precise, use different blends of flour to yield different effects. And then, just as quickly as it came in to my life, I let it go. I stopped baking bread for years. I’ve done this with a lot of things in my life, both big things and small things, sometimes (often) even letting go just as soon as I’ve gotten good, experienced, or proficient at it. It’s hard to describe, but this urge to let go is powerful when it comes. Like the urge to bear down when giving birth, I can’t ignore it, table it, push it down for later. It demands attention and action now, and there’s no controlling it, even if I desperately want to. I used to hate this about myself. “You’re a quitter, undisciplined, pathetic!” , my mind would scream to my heart. “Why can’t you ever stick with something? What are you afraid of?” But really, truly, this is me. I have strong intuition, and I honor the urges I get which come to tell me to wade more deeply in, or to pull myself out. I have no qualms, no attachments to trip me up from moving, leaving, shedding the thing, the job, the person, the routine. And that is ok. It is ok, good, right, to not make yourself fit into a box that you’ve outgrown. Whether its bread baking or a job or a relationship. Cut it all out, anything that doesn’t feel good and honest and true to you and what you need, right now. It’s how I felt fine leaving a job I’d been at for close to a decade.

But the bread. I’ve come back to the bread. This time, a lovely, yeasty, soft bread with a medium crumb and chew, softly redolent of potatoes. I read this book, called A Thousand Days in Venice, and at the back of the book were a few recipes from the story, one being this potato bread. I made it once, I made it twice, I made it thrice and more. It’s easy, good, beautiful. It made great toast, it made a good companion, thickly sliced, alongside lentil potato soup. It made great almond butter and raspberry jam sandwiches, which I doled out to my kids and their friends on the long way back from the beach, and which were promptly and happily devoured. And when I had some stale and tough ends, I made panzanella, a lovely Italian salad which makes the best of these bits, combining them with sweet tomatoes, good olive oil, rich basil, sweetly sharp red onion, for the easiest and most delicious lunch. Whether you are a baker or not, you can make this. Promise. Courage! And remember to keep baking new loaves as long as it makes you happy, and not a second more.

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potato bread

yields 2 loaves
(adapted from Marlena de Blasi’s recipe from A Thousand Days in Venice)

1 lb / 450g of unpeeled baking potatoes (such as russet)
3.5 tsp active dry yeast
2 lbs/905 g all purpose flour (plus more to knead and dust loaves)
1 tsp sea salt

Boil the potatoes (unpeeled) until tender in plenty of well salted water (like for pasta). Reserve 2 cups / 480 ml of the cooking water and drain the rest off. Let the water and the potatoes cool down until easily handled. Peel the potato and thoroughly mash it, I used a food mill.

Now, sprinkle the yeast over the potato water (which should be warm but not to hot, which will kill the yeast). Set aside for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly flour a flat work surface, like your counter, the table, a cutting board, etc.

In a large mixing bowl, use your fingertips to work the mashed potato and salt into the flour. It will, of course, be very dry, but you’re just looking to somewhat combine them. Now, add the yeast mixture and mix throughly until it comes together into a doughy ball. Turn this mass out onto your floured surface and knead it about 8 or more minutes, during which time the dough will transform from loose and very sticky to a lovely satiny, elastic, smooth ball. It will still be a bit sticky- that’s ok, and good actually!

Wash your hands, lightly oil a large bowl, and set the dough inside. Take a good look at how big it looks in the bowl so you can later judge how much its grown. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, or a lid or a plate if you have something that fits nicely over the top. Now set the bowl in a place to rise. You want it to be warm, and not drafty (so not by an open window, vent or door that will be used often). Let it rise until the dough has doubled in size, roughly 1 hour, but will depend on the temperature and such of your specific environment.

Gently punch down the dough and cut it into halves. On a large baking sheet (or two smaller ones), shape each one into a round loaf. Lightly dust with flour and cover with clean kitchen towels and allow to rise another hour or so- a good rule of thumb to know when it’s ready is to gently, lightly press it with a fingertip. If the dough springs back, its not ready. Leave it another 15 minutes and check again. When a small imprint remains on the dough from your finger, it is ready to bake. Very lightly dust the tops with a fine mist of flour (think powdered sugar), and then score the loaves in the design of your choosing. Scoring is easier than in seems. This is a great tutorial, this one too. Just be sure to use a very sharp knife, or I use a clean double edged razor blade I pinched from Joel.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F and bake the loaves until the crust is very brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove and allow to cool on a wire rack before cutting.

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