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We should have seen the signs. It started with a book on bread, diligently studied and dog-eared.
Next came the flour, which accumulated into a stockpile that my father inconspicuously slid into our garage with the cunning of a hoarder. White flour perpetually dusted the surfaces of our kitchen like a soft sprinkling of snow. The yeast came shortly after, proudly occupying a few square inches in the top cupboard.
We never imagined that a loaf of bread could change the dynamic of a household.
No one in my family is sure on the particulars of where my father’s obsession with bread stemmed from. We’re not sure if we’ll ever know. It could have been the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book that quickly earned a permanent spot on the hutch over our oven. It could have been boredom. Maybe it was an episode on the Food Network. Or it could have been that the feeling homemade bread gives you was missing from our home.
As first, my father’s bread was never fully cooked in the centre. The loaf’s shape would often resemble a flat skipping stone, no matter the content of baking powder. The taste would be dense and the bread would sit heavily in our stomachs. The colour of the dough had a greyish tinge. The crust had consistency issues. Worst of all, in my mind, it was laden with caraway seeds.
The topic of caraway seeds is a touchy one in my family. In rye bread, I find their taste distracting and bitter. Their texture is crunchy, like uncooked rice. My mother and father enjoy them, but I passionately hate them. My father knows this well. No matter: He has a shaker devoted to the seeds, which are never sprinkled lightly onto his loaves, but poured heavily into the dough, regardless of the recipe – perhaps out of love, or perhaps out of spite.
As my dad continued experimenting with bread, he learned that dough needs a proper environment in which to rise. He chose a rather massive Tupperware container as his location of choice.
He once told me matter-of-factly that bread dough can last for several days, after a particular loaf had left a bad taste in my mouth. Sourdough was often left in our garage for days on end. When all of the dough had been used, the inside of the container would be caked with off-white remnants. When we asked my father, “Dad, shouldn’t we wash out the box?” he would reply: “I read that it adds flavour to the dough.” He could not be reasoned with.
But with practice came improvement, and my dad’s best baking advance back then was his pizza dough. It was absolutely delicious, and consistently delicious at that. He began making pizzas regularly, and my friends would invite themselves over to dinner. Among them, his pizzas were legendary.
The key to his success was using the proper tools. A pizza stone is an absolute necessity to ensure even cooking. They were a source of misery for our family.
They are heavy, flat slabs that help to spread the heat of the oven through the dough. But when pizza stones are exposed to high heat, they become brittle. When the pizza era began, we spent close to $80 replacing broken stones. Oven mitts stood no chance against their heat, and the stones were often dropped.
To further their rapport with our family, the pizza stones were covered in easily burned cornmeal to ensure no dough would stick to their surface. Every time my mother or I would go to bake something in the oven, we would find an enormous pizza stone covered with the burnt residue of cornmeal dust on the bottom shelf.
Occasionally, a big crash would be heard as the pizza stone clattered to the ground and broke neatly into three or four pieces. My father wasn’t convinced that meant it should be thrown out. Three pieces could be shaped together like a jigsaw puzzle, he reasoned. The segments of pizza stone would live on in the oven until one them was lost or so badly burned that it was flavouring the pizza.
My father persevered with his bread. He was constantly searching for the best recipe; some of his trials were better than others. My mother and I saw improvement in his brioche and his whole-wheat bread, and came to appreciate his cheddar loaf. His rye bread was good, when it wasn’t too heavy on the caraway seeds.
But as his bread got better, he stopped baking as often. His passion for bread had given way to other hobbies.
I was surprised to realize while working away from home last summer that I actually missed it. I craved something with flavour and density.
On my last day, I came home to an empty house. It was late at night, and a single pot light lit up the kitchen. Its glow reflected cooking smoke, and the fan was on to dissipate the scent of burnt cornmeal. A loaf of bread sat on the cutting board, rock hard and grey in the centre. Caraway seeds dusted the countertop, and the blackened pizza stone sat atop the stove’s burner.
The bread was dense and halfway cooked. It tasted like home.
Millie Yates lives in Peterborough, Ont.