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The Bread of Home

Memory

The heady aroma of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen greets me. We are visiting my grandparents on their wheat farm in eastern Montana. Earlier in the day, my grandmother had scooped a bucket of wheat kernels from their granary. She brought the wheat into her kitchen and ground it in her grinder, the old-fashioned kind with a funnel-shaped top to hold the grain, a drawer at the bottom to catch the flour, and a hand crank that, when turned, transformed the kernels into flour. 

The smells of the freshly ground flour and the loaves turning golden in the oven, the taste of a warm slice smeared with fresh butter and homemade jam. These are ethereal memories. Many layers of meaning arise from this process, and the actual eating of the bread is only a small part. 

Bread as a Symbol

When a loved one lavishes us an act of care and kindness, the smells, sights, and actions of that memory etch into the depths of our being. What started at a young age with my grandmother then continued as baking mentors cultivated and nurtured my passion. As such, the baking of bread has always held a deeper meaning for me.

Bread represents a warm and welcoming home. It tells of the safe and quiet inspiration that grandmothers dole out so generously and displays the skills gained through time-tested experience. The baking of bread and its delectable bouquet evoke love, security, and hospitality.

A Quiet Hour

Each step in the process is calming: softening the yeast, weighing the flour, and culturing the starter in a warm spot on the counter. I am careful when I measure my ingredients, minding the ratios of flour to liquid to yeast. 

With a rhythmic motion, I knead the dough. Understanding the elasticity in the dough tells me when it has been kneaded just the right amount of time. Then with anticipation, I watch the magic of the loaves rising, for there is a sense to knowing when it has risen enough. Finally, precision meets artistry as the dough bakes to a tan crust.  

Baking bread elicits a feeling of home and a sense of family history. Recently I have been making beloved standards as well as venturing into other cultures to discover new techniques and flavorings. With bread I travel from family favorites to European classics, from sweet to savory. We can go from a simple white loaf to breads filled with hearty grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. No matter how ancient or distant the origin of the recipe, they all bring me back home.

Living Bread

The more I bake, the more wild yeast escapes into my kitchen. My dough picks up this yeast and uses it. Over time the amount of yeast I need to add decreases. My kitchen becomes alive. It participates in the act of baking.

Bread can also seed new bread, almost self sustaining. Many seasoned bakers tear off a section of dough and set it aside to incorporate into the next batch. This aged dough not only aids in the rising but adds depth and complexity to the flavor of the bread. In the days before the invention of commercial yeasts, sourdough starters, which pull in wild yeasts from the air or the sharing of bits of soured dough between family and friends, was essential to making bread.

It warms my heart to see the grocery store shelves empty of flour and yeast. We collectively are baking. At the same time that we nourish our loved ones, we are showing them we care. We are demonstrating their importance to us in the act of baking them bread.

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Challah with sesame seeds
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Tokens of Christmas Warmth

Spoon Cookies

The night is waning; dawn has not yet arrived. Pats of unsalted butter melt in the saucepan. With a silicone scraper, I stir back and forth across the bottom, watching the butter carefully. First the surface bubbles, and then a thick foam forms. Finally, I smell it, the nutty aroma of beurre noisette or brown butter. I quickly transfer the pan to a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. I am in the kitchen making my favorite and most time-consuming Christmas cookie, spoon cookies. 

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Beurre noisette or brown butter

Spoon cookies are so named for the spoon that forms their shape. It must be an old silver spoon. These ancient beauties have deep bowls, so they work perfectly for filling with cookie dough. This morning, the favored teaspoon came from my Aunt Ada. Its smooth surface aids in helping the pressed cookie easily slide onto the cookie sheet. As I fill, press, and slide the cookie dough, my mind drifts back to memories of the generation that went before mine. They were children of immigrants, their lives steeped in traditions from the old country. These are traditions I have come to cherish, traditions I try to teach to those in my life.

After placing the tray into the oven to bake, I warm raspberry jam on the stove. Once strained, a smear of this jam will serve as a delicious glue between two baked cookies, forming what in the end looks a bit like a little egg. Each Christmas season, I look forward to the complex taste of the nutty beurre noisette against the sweet jam.

Caramels

Next on the agenda are caramels. Creamy and sweet, these are another labor intensive favorite. Between you, me, and the fence post, they have proved a challenge for me to perfect. Each time I make them, I seem to discover another idiosyncrasy of these delicious candies. This year’s batch, while a delicious and rich confection of sugar, butter, and cream, is a touch on the chewy side, which I of course blame on my ancient candy thermometer. 

Yulekage: Christmas Bread

Next up, Yulekage. A favorite Scandinavian spice, cardamom, enlivens this tender sweet Christmas bread. To amp up the flavor, I always freshly grind my cardamom for this recipe. This distinctive spice together with the mix of golden and red raisins and topped with a crest of luscious frosting makes for a festive bread indeed. Thanks to the magnitude of the recipe, eighteen loaves have already left my kitchen to date, and this bread is my go-to baked Christmas gift. 

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Lefse

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ubiquitous Norwegian delicacy, lefse. This potato-based flatbread defines December menus in the north country. It has to be paper thin, soft with light brown spots scattered across its surface, and with tiny dots of Russet potatoes. Lefse-making is a two-day affair that should be embarked on just before your kitchen needs a deep cleaning. Trust me, I know whereof I speak…  

Cookies Et Alia

Other gems that might make their appearance in my comestible gifting include my Aunt Joyce’s thin sugary ginger snaps, my brother-in-law Bill’s butter balls, nutmeg-laden Kranse Kake, and crisp, frosted sugar cookies. The list could go on, but the variety and supply of goodies depends on how much the schedule expands in early December.

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A Modicum of Our Christmas Joy

Why do we go through these tasks in the holiday season? What is the reason we shop and wrap, cook and bake, and assemble trays and tins to pass out to family, friends, and neighbors? Why do we put in the additional effort to make things extra special? The Christmas season is already a busy time of year, yet we add to it by making such effortful goodies to give to others.

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There are many people in my life who hold a special place. Some are family, some are friends. It just seems that in this unlikeliest of seasons, the coldest, darkest days of winter, when we grace others with an act of kindness, a small array of culinary delights, we offer them a modicum of our joy. We are saying the world is better because of their presence in it. We are saying you are important to me. In giving something of ourselves to others, whether it’s our time, our talents, created gifts, or purchased items, we are telling them they are significant and special. 

I will always get up before dawn or stay up into the wee hours to create tokens of my affection for those I hold dear.  

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Apples are Autumn

I step outside, and the clear, cool air of autumn greets me. A breeze rustles the leaves above. I look up and catch my breath at the electric orange and red leaves of the sugar maples that dot the neighborhood. My shoes rustle through golden piles of leaves that have blown across the sidewalk. An orchestral cacophony of geese honk overhead as they head off to the south.  

Autumn is a time for closure. We are cleaning up our gardens and yards. Raking and bagging. Harvesting and canning. Tucking our yard in for a long winter’s nap. 

It’s also a time of beginnings. The school year has begun. The sound of marching bands and football games is our background music as we work outside. Our community has sprung back to life with concerts and theater performances filling the schedule once again. Colleges are back in session. Backpack-laden, Patagonia vested students stroll the campuses.    

The Comfort of Apples

For me, apples are the quintessential definition of fall. Freshly picked from the local orchard, they are crisp and sweet and juicy. In this statement, one could include all things apple. Apple orchards, apple pie, apple butter, applesauce, apple crisp. In fact, the intoxicating aroma of apple butter stewing on the stove replete with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice is something I could live with all year. Waking up each morning to the delightful end product smeared on hot toast brings a perfect start to the day.

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Apples define home. They are the warp and weft of our autumnal tapestry. We all relate to the saying, “as American as apple pie.” In the north country, the annual family trip to the apple orchard remains a tradition not to be skipped. Getting lost in the corn maze, sipping hot cider, sticky mouths and fingers from finagling with an enormous caramel apple; these are precious memories. 

Apple Cooking Creations

Free form apple tartlets are my go-to dessert at the moment. They are as quick and mindless as they are delicious. I roll out pie crust dough and cut it in large irregular circles. Thin slivers of apples splay in pinwheels in the center of the dough. Over the top I sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and white sugar, and pats of butter dot the surface. I fold the edges of the dough over in such a way to capture the syrupy juice that develops with baking. When this sweet pleated orb bakes on a hot stone, the bottom is crisp yet flaky, the filling perfectly tender.

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Freeform apple cinnamon tartlet

From easy to complex, from breakfast to a midnight snack, apples fit the bill. When I want things as simple as can be, I slice then dip the wedges in almond butter. For a special occasion I step up my game and make the iconic French dessert Tarte Tatin. Omelets filled with sauteed apples and cheddar cheese make for a brunch your guests won’t soon forget. Slivers of apples topped with Gorgonzola cheese, local honey, and Durango Hickory Smoked sea salt is an easy hors d’oeuvres that will get you nominated for your neighborhood’s host of the year award.  

This year let us soak in this delightful season. Autumn is not going to be a wedge season. Instead of jumping over the narrow stream called fall, let’s bask in its glorious colors and delicious aromas, creating memories that last. Maple trees as brilliant as a summer sunset will stay etched in my mind throughout the grey light of winter. I am willing time to slow, enjoying every step. When winter arrives, I’ll be refreshed, renewed, and ready for parkas and boots.