Baking Bread

By  Will Willingham

It always begins with this: pulling the sleeve of my shirt (this time a faded yellow Oxford with a fine navy pinstripe) over my hand to leave only a thick, shiny silver curlicue sticking out from the cuff. I recite my perennial joke, though there is no one in the room to either snicker or sneer at it.

Arr, matey. It’s Cap’n Dough Hook.

I push the hooks into the mixer with a hard click and glance at the deep bowl beside it in time to see a dozen tiny explosions as yeast activates in a warm brown pool of watery milk, honey and molasses.

About every third time I bake bread the yeast balks at my sense of what is warm enough but not too warm and instead of taking breaststroke laps around the bowl before shooting triumphantly to the surface, the particles clump together in a huddled mass, refusing even to dunk their heads like a class of beginning swimmers.

The canister of whole wheat flour is empty, just short of the two-and-a-half cups I need so I open a new bag, the surface of my fingers drying as they touch the grainy powder. I set the bag back down too hard and a cloud puffs out through the small spout I’ve cut open, dusting the countertop I’d just cleaned off and sanitized. “Arr, matey, ” I tell myself. “Thar’s no way to make bread tidy.”

I’ve added the dry ingredients to the bowl and I turn on the mixer. I watch the powder turn over into the dark milky liquid, forming creamy lumps that gently knock shoulders with one another before being dragged under by slow-turning corkscrews until they pull into themselves as one large mass, rough and smooth-skinned at the same time.

The recipe tells me the dough should “climb the hook and slap around the sides of the bowl without sticking, ” and the process suddenly strikes me as more violent than bread-making ought to be. Soft, shapely dough ought not be bullied, slapped around in the bowl until its texture suits the baker, and I turn the mixer off. I know what this means, of course. I hold my hands out in front of me and quietly assure them it won’t last long. I nod toward the faucet and promise they’ll have all the soap and water they need when we’re done. “Could be worse, ” I say. “I could make ye walk t’ plank.”

It’s still warm when I reach slender fingers around the dough to pull it from the bowl. It’s warm and it’s sticky. It refuses to come out in one lump. A third clings to the bottom of the bowl with outstretched arms, like a suckling babe being pulled from its mother. I set the dough on the counter, already well floured after my earlier mishap. I press gently into it, flatten it and begin to knead firmly, but softly, with the base of my hand. Fold in from the top, then press, then turn— we find a rhythm that seems to please us both.

I calculate. By machine, I was to knead six minutes. By hand, fifteen. If I let the machine work for three minutes that would leave seven minutes by hand, maybe eight. But I don’t know when I started, so the blinking digits on the clock mean nothing. I run my hands over the dough, let it find its own domed shape, and call it good.

I drizzle olive oil into the large silver bowl on the counter behind me, take a cloth and smear it all the way up the sides. The recipe doesn’t ask for this, but I do it anyway, wanting the dough to hold loosely to the bowl as it rises. Lifting the dough, I set it in the bowl, then take the oil again and pour it into my cupped hand. I study the golden pool, then tip my hand to let the oil run into the other. I rub them together, the back of my neck bristling slightly at the sensation of slippery oil against coarse, drying dough on my hands. I open my palms again to the dough and smooth them around the curves, coating its warm, taut skin.

As soon as I turn on the faucet, my hands dive under the water, not waiting for the soap, rub themselves together until they are smooth and clean. Then I return to the silver bowl, pull a white towel gently across the top, and leave the dough, its swelling roundness, to rest.

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