I don't know when the urge first hit to plunge my hands deep into a bowl of flour and water. I suppose generations of Italian women in my family have been pinching and pushing bread dough into amazing things. But me, I could barely boil water for spaghetti. Where did my desire for kneading come from?
A recent trip to my Aunt Vicki's house unraveled a few strands of the mystery. As we entered the coolness of her western Pennsylvania basement, the yeasty smell of fresh pizza dough welcomed us. While we visited, Aunt Vicki periodically popped up from the table to knead and shape a pile of dough on her counter. That dough would soon become 24 buns for my husband and me to take back home to New Hampshire. Aunt Vicki had also had her hands in dough earlier that day, baking cookies for our return journey.
Of course, I couldn't leave without her dough recipe. Unsure of exact proportions, Aunt Vicki made a phone call to her mother-in-law, who lived next door. After a flurry of Italian words, she called out: ``Three cups of water, 1-1/4 cups olive oil, 1 package of yeast, 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, and add flour until it's right.''
I had spent the past winter making my own pizza dough. Starting late in the afternoon on Sunday, I let the dough rise. I put together a sauce from canned tomatoes, frozen basil, and lots of oregano. Finally, four hours later, the pizza would emerge from the oven with a crunchy mile-high crust.
Although my husband and I both had full-time jobs, I never felt my pizza- making took a huge bite out of my free time. In fact, I couldn't think of a better way to cap off a weekend than to pamper the yeasty, olivy dough that sometimes formed the culinary high point of our week.
``Start to finish, about an hour and a half,'' some co-workers were having a conversation just a little too close for me not to overhear. ``Best crust I've ever eaten,'' one of them said.
Right in front of me, people were praising the crust-making qualities of a machine. As if they didn't know I was there, they continued to rave about bread machines - electronic gizmos programmed to mimic the care and nurturing one gives to dough. What kind of cardboard slab were these people passing off as pizza crust, I wondered.
Acknowledging my indignation at such a prospect, one of them said to me, ``No, really, you'd be surprised.''
Even though I worked for a computer company and spent my days surrounded by the latest in hardware, software, networks, and Noteworks, I was still known to the rest of the company as a ``low-tech'' person. Some even thought using a dictionary to look up words was from the Dark Ages, since spell-checkers are available on-line.
Two days later, I was forced to confront my prejudice. A co-worker handed me a huge square of chewy bread fresh from his bread machine. We'd had a little agreement. I brought him whole- wheat sour-cream-and-chive biscuits I'd rolled out the night before and cut with a drinking glass, in exchange for a taste of his button-pushing baking.
``Not bad,'' I munched. It actually tasted like real bread!
With my birthday just a few short weeks away, I wasn't trying to drop any hints when I mentioned to my husband that evening that I'd had a piece of bread from a machine and it was much better than I thought it would be.
``Are you saying you want a bread machine for your birthday?'' he asked.
``No, I'm not saying that. It's just that it really was good bread,'' I said. ``I like to knead, and I can't imagine making dough without kneading. It wouldn't be any fun.''
``But you could make dough your way on the weekend or whenever you wanted,'' he said.
My birthday morning dawned, full and bright. As I tore the cheery paper off a large box, my husband, with a rather apologetic look, said, ``Honey, feel free to take back whatever you don't want. I won't be hurt at all.''
My bread machine had all the latest features. A special cycle for sweet dough, a timer, and a dough hook that stretched the dough and improved the texture. There was even a take-a-peek window that let you watch while the kneading, rising, and baking were going on. Plus a toll-free bread-hotline number for those bread-baking emergencies.
I called the hotline three times in the next three days. My first loaf exploded in the machine. It covered the inside with gooey, sticky batter (too much liquid); my second loaf caved in (the brand of yeast was called into question); and the third loaf poofed out over the top of the pan (no explanation). The next one rose doomed and dark-crusted and made excellent French toast. My husband went to work with sandwiches on cracked- wheat and seven-grain bread. We had pizza in an hour and a half.
Sure, I push buttons to make bread. It's summer now, and 90-degree days are making the choice for me: It's too hot to contemplate making bread.
However, when snow piles high against the house and the woodstove is beckoning for a bowl of dough to puff up, the temptation will be great to push my hands into a mound of flour and water.