How hard could it be to bake bread?
"Mom, can I bake some bread?" We were 15, my best friend, Hanna, and I, determined to try our hands at creating some beautiful, steamy bread. One of my neighbors baked every week, and we had sampled some of her mouthwatering results.
"It's easy," she told us. "Just follow the recipe and my instructions."
"It's not worth the trouble," my mother said. "It takes lots of time and makes a big mess. Our bakery bread is delicious without all that effort."
Pleading was useless. Mom's "no" meant "No!"
But several weeks later, opportunity knocked: My parents were going out for the evening. I immediately invited Hanna to be my accomplice in bread-baking crime.
The moment my parents left, I phoned Hanna, who arrived quickly. We studied the recipe: "Dissolve yeast and one tablespoon of the sugar in the water." That was easy.
"Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in four of the eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt."
We were not adept at breaking eggs. I tried to imitate my mother's quick tap of the egg on a glass's rim to crack it open, followed by a flip of the wrist to pour out the egg. After two or three attempts, we got enough of the eggs into the bowl.
One egg had landed on floor, though. And some dribbles of oil had sneaked their way down the leg of a kitchen chair.
"Clean up and put things away as you go along," my mother had always told me as I watched her culinary activities. But we had no time for that now.
"Gradually add eight cups of flour. When dough holds together, knead it."
We took turns sifting the flour. "Is the dough 'holding together'?" we asked each other.
I remembered my neighbor's instructions: "If it's too sticky, add some flour; if too dry, add water."
"It's too sticky," Hanna said sagely. We added flour.
"It's too dry," I said with equal sagacity. We added water. Then more flour. Then more water. By then, the mass of our dough had grown considerably.
"We'll just make an extra loaf," Hanna said.
"Place dough on floured surface and knead till smooth," the recipe instructed.
We took turns burying our hands in the moist dough, pinching, squeezing, and feeling it ooze between fingers.
"Clean and grease bowl, then return dough to bowl. Cover and let dough rise in warm place for 1 hour."
This was good news – we'd have a break. On spattered kitchen chairs, we dreamed about our beautiful bread. "See?" we would tell my mom. "Isn't it worth the work?"
Neither Hanna nor I could resist peeking at the rising process every few minutes. But nothing was happening. We left the room to avoid further temptation. After an hour we returned. Still, nothing had happened.
"Maybe the yeast water was too warm," I said.
"Maybe it wasn't warm enough," Hanna said.
"Let's try another package," we agreed. We added the new yeast mixture to the old dough. Nothing happened.
"Maybe it'll rise in loaf shape," Hanna said. We formed and sculpted the loaves. They were a work of art. But they did not rise.
"Maybe something will happen in the hot oven," I said.
Unfortunately, when we removed the loaves from the oven, they were like marbleized beige stones.
And the kitchen was a mess: Eggshells crunched underfoot and streaks of flour decorated the walls. Frantically we swept and scrubbed. We put the calcified loaves into a garbage bag along with all the other trash. Hanna would dispose of the evidence on her way home.
When my parents returned, they found me calmly reading on the couch.
"What did you do all evening?" they asked.
"Oh, not much," I replied. "Talked to a friend, studied science, cleaned up a bit." All of this was true.
Since that long-ago, eventful night, both Hanna and I have learned to do it right. We have joined the thousands of people, men and women, of many cultures and continents, who, throughout the centuries, have baked bread by hand.
Mom was right; it takes time and effort. It sometimes makes a mess. But still it feels good, somehow, to be part of that long, ongoing chain of bread bakers.