“How many of you knew,” I asked my UNM-Taos “Best of Bread” class last Friday evening, “that you’ve been carrying the basic recipe for yeast-raised bread right on your body for your entire adult lives?”  The students looked at me incredulously.  They had only just met me, and for all they knew I was a crazy woman.

 

 

“Yes!  Look!  It’s right here,” I said, rolling up the right sleeve of my white chef’s jacket.  I could see I had their attention for sure.  “A French baker once showed me.  It’s all about only four ingredients — in these proportions:  This much salt (I indicated the first digit of my thumb), this much yeast (the measure of the whole thumb), this much water (from the wrist joint to the tip of the middle finger), and this much flour (from the elbow to the end of the extended hand).  Flour, water, yeast, and salt – these are the fundamental building blocks of bread.  And in these proportions, you can’t go wrong.  It’s the Golden Mean!”

 

 

Making homemade bread and teaching bread baking have been passions of mine for decades.  In the Peace Corps in Gabon in the ‘90s, I gave bread lessons in my home to large groups of local women who would otherwise seldom socialize.  Muslim women from West Africa sat side-by-side with devout Gabonese Christians and admitted animists, chatting amicably and taking notes in their cahiers.  When it came time to knead the dough, we all took turns, laughing and then patting the dough lovingly when I said it should feel “as soft as a baby’s bottom.”  Sharing the fresh-baked bread became a bonding experience for us; we women became companions – literally, those who break bread together.

 

 

Yes, it takes some time to bake homemade bread.  But, as M.F.K. Fisher says in her classic WWII-era memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Wolf, “If you can find that [time], the rest is easy.  And if you cannot rightly find [the time], make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

 

 

Here is the recipe I taught in Gabon.  Unlike the long, thin, tasteless and doughy baguettes the women could buy in town, my bread, which I called Pain Americain, was round and golden, offering more flavor, texture, and nutritive value.  In time, as some of the mothers made this bread at home, I learned from the children that my recipe had acquired a new name.  No longer Pain Americain, it was called “pain de maman Bonnie.”

 

Bonnie Bread (aka Pain Americain)  

1 teaspoon sugar                     

1 cup water

1 cup white flour (all-purpose or bread flour)                            

2 teaspoons dried yeast

 

To make the “sponge,” combine all of the above ingredients in a bowl, mix until blended, cover and allow to ferment at room temperature overnight.

 

1 cup boiling water

1 rounded teaspoon salt                    

¼ cup sugar (or honey)                                

½ cup whole-grain meal, such as oatmeal or cornmeal (or a combination)

¼ cup NIDO (powdered milk)                                    

¼ cup light vegetable oil (such as canola)                                          

1 egg (optional)

 

In a large bowl, combine the boiling water, salt, sugar (or honey), whole-grain meal, powdered milk, vegetable oil, and (optional) egg.  Mix well and allow to cool to room temperature.

 

5+ cups bread flour

 

Combine the above mixtures with enough flour to make a pliable dough and knead 8 to10 minutes.  Allow to rise to double in size (about 1 hour at room temperature).  Punch down, form into loaves, and allow to rise to double again.  Bake in preheated (400-degree) oven until golden, about 30-40 minutes.  Makes two large loaves.

 

(For the complete lesson on how to make this bread, see pages 163-174 of my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile.)