On days when crisp fall fades to a dusk that chills the toes, I always think of home. Because on days like this, my house smells like baking bread.
In the eighteen years that I lived at home, I don’t think my mother ever once bought a loaf of bread. It was one of those tasks, like laundry, that you just do yourself, no matter how tiresome. Perhaps the most familiar scene from my childhood is Mom, with the huge aluminum bowl on the table in the middle of that beat-up linoleum floor and horrible burnt-yellow wallpaper, making bread.
5-lb. bag of white flour (more or less)
½ c. lard
2 T. salt
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. yeast dissolved in 5 ½ c. warm water (potato water if you have it)
Dump half the flour in a large pan. Measure in lard, salt & sugar. Cut in lard & stir. Add yeast water and stir, adding flour as it gets incorporated.
We’d prop our hands on brown-vinyl chair backs and the cabinet and swing back and forth, regaling her with stories. She never stopped folding dough onto itself, the table squeaking under the force of her arms, a sound you heard and recognized wherever you were in the house. I never understood how she did it. Even today my arms wear out long before the bread’s ready.
When dough is too stiff to stir, continue kneading with hands, at least fifteen minutes, till texture is smooth and satiny. “You can’t knead bread too much,” she says.
At last, she’d slap the dough on the table and dig floury fingers into the lard bucket, smearing it around the bowl to keep the dough from sticking. She’d put the big ball in, rub it around, flip it over, then cover the top to keep it moist for the next couple hours as the smell of yeast permeated the front rooms.
Let rise until doubled. Punch down, let rise again.
Sometimes she didn’t get started early enough in the day, and the smell was late blossoming, twining with roast beef and potatoes and apple pie. I was almost sorry on those days, because it was hard to pick out the smell.
Cut dough ball into quarters. Knead and shape each piece into loaves. Place into pans greased with lard and turn to coat the loaf. Let rise until doubled.
Those nights, we’d all go to bed and Mom would stay up, sitting at the table reading, waiting for the loaves to finish rising and then baking. I always felt sorry for her, but I wonder now if some part of her relished that quiet solitude.
Bake at 350 for about 35 minutes. Turn out onto cooling racks and smear with bacon grease to lock the moisture in.
Now, as then, warm homemade bread with butter and honey is my favorite of all indulgences. Brownies and ice cream are decadent, but fresh bread is soul food. It means home.