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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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Savoring our sweet hygge

The snap and pop of a fire in the hearth, the twinkle of lights on the mantle, a steaming mug of cocoa, Wynton Marsalis playing a jazz version of “Winter Wonderland,” candles burning; these are the sights and sounds of hygge in December in the north. Cinnamon, cardamom, pine, nutmeg, apple, ginger, bread baking; these are the aromas that linger.

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A Scandinavian Christmas

In our house Nordic traditions include round after round of tender lefse coming off the grill, savory Swedish meatballs with lingonberries providing a sweet counter, a delicately carved rosewood crèche on the side table, the rich scent of Yulekake and cardamom buns baking in the oven, gingersnaps cooling on the counter. Smoked salmon, Jarlsburg cheese, and pâté made of goat cheese and dill served on thin crisps of rye bread. Glasses of eggnog or hot buttered rum are raised in toast.

Tis the season to be cozy and warm, to create hygge in our homes and lifestyle. Hygge is the Scandinavian (particularly Danish) way of simplifying to create a cozy sense of well being. Choosing the essential and eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the build up of to-do lists, parties, and the tasks that we take on to make the season that much more special actually detract from its beauty.

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Charming simplicity

The seasonal starkness has a beauty all its own. As I sit writing in the dusky dawn gazing out at the grey outdoor light and then at the flickering amber candle, I cannot help but think of my ancestors who hailed from above the Arctic Circle. Did they love this diminished daylight as much as I do? Cloudy skies the color of Tahitian pearls. Our ornament-laden Christmas tree virtually glows in this milky light.

What is it about the wintry north, where absence has a reverse effect of heightening our appreciation of what we do have? This is nature’s version of hygge. When the sun emerges on those crystalline December mornings, the crunch of snow beneath our steps is louder, the song of the ruby cardinal on a far off branch is music we dance to, the diamond-like sparkle of frost takes our breath away. I’ve often thought necessity inspires creativity. The need for warmth became the beautiful and intricate Norwegian sweater, where the more involved the Fair Isle design, the more layers of yarn used, resulting in an almost opulent but necessary coziness.

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Subtraction becomes resplendent multiplication. Friendships seem to matter more. We linger longer over coffee and conversation. Friends gather and sip from hot cups of soup. We roast and bake and share with others. The gratefulness on the faces of needy neighbors when presented with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven warms our souls more than any down jacket could.

Treasured tradition

The dark cold months focus our priorities. It seems that in the lush green of other seasons we venture into the unknown. We try new activities, taste new foods, travel to new places, establish new goals, or start new habits. But at the holidays, we treasure the tried, the true, the traditions that we hold dear. For me this means remembering the Christ Child’s birth, singing favorite carols, preparing time-honored foods, hearing the crackle of Ponderosa Pine logs burning in the fireplace, smelling the heady aroma of roasting meats, listening to Handel’s Messiah, or hearing the ringing sound of handbell choirs.

Music runs along the season as a common thread. Christmas tunes play everywhere. When walking down Main Street or in the grocery aisle, we are constantly serenaded. We are cheered. I find myself flitting from inspirational John Rutter choral pieces to the nostalgic Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, then on to the husky voice of Louis Armstrong or the peaceful sound of Laurance Jube playing his guitar.

Embracing the season 

Apart from the other times of the year, the cold winter tranquility stirs passion and a strong sense of fearlessness in our souls. We venture out into the brisk nights bundled up in our coats and boots, the biting winds and looming darkness unable to dampen our spirits. Then after a long, full day, we nestle into the warmth of our homes to soak in the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights that define the serenity of the season.

Winter, December, waiting, Christmas, laughter, darkness, stockings on the mantle, Advent candles, baby Jesus, cold, joy, warm sweaters, ice skating, Christmas concerts, red velvet, snow, white fur, Kransekake, light, bells, icicles, kindness, gingerbread houses, shearling slippers, cedar and holly garland. So many indispensable words, these words of the season.

This year I have whittled and parsed all the while clarifying. The essence of my own Christmas season becomes a marriage of the most unsuspecting companions. The pairings of cold and family leads to memories created. Elimination of the unnecessary makes for times all the more treasured thanks to their poignant simplicity. This is my holiday hygge.