The surprising thing is, I don’t really care if I learn how to make bread or not. Everyone else, or perhaps it is unique to expat American women living in Europe – really wants to learn to make bread. Personally I don’t eat bread very often: It is either an unnecessary additive to the meal, or the meal itself when its a worthy splurge. A splurge does takes place with a chunk of salty cheese and relies on a certain loaf from the supermarket downtown involving walnuts, hazelnuts AND figs. Another time that I might indulge, and nine times out of ten overindulge, is in bread from Jonathan’s parents village. The boulangerie in Bevaix has the best bread I have ever tasted: It’s often sold out by nine a.m. and I have called in advance to reserve a loaf when visitors from America were coming and this loaf of bread was typed into the week’s itenirary. Jon knows that if I buy this bread that I am going to end up on the far side of the table, arm wrapped protectively around my plate and a jar of homemade jam, and that I will bite if he gets too close.
Crackers are far superior. They are practical (nearly no spoilage factor,) crunchy and generally always have the same guaranteed flavor, one after another. Bread gets stale so quickly, or lacks salt or flavor. Or both. It sticks to the insides of my ribs (Okay, that’s just what my father tells me) and makes me feel uncomfortably full during dinner. When I was young I would eat the insides of the bread slices and leave the crunchy exterior rings in the basket, for my father who would shake his head and say "You’ve been raised by wolves," as he bit down into a deflated crust-ring. As with other things – beet, asparagus, sugared cereals – my tastes have changed so much since childhood. Jonathan knows the adult me so well that he will leave a note next to the bread in the morning saying, "Please leave me some crust." I have a steady habit of ripping off the very hard exterior to European bread, and leaving a lump of bread-innard in the sack.
Thus, given my antipathy towards bread in general, it was very odd that last Friday I hosted a bread-making class at my apartment. The class took place there only because the teacher, my friend Rosa, has a very narrow kitchen, and I have a completely open one with more lighting than an Ikea storeroom. Rosa is a master-chef who specializes in down home country American cooking, even though she’s never tasted it herself. I hope someday that will change. In fact, I hope one day to see her on the food network. I think she and Paula Dean could be BFF. I asked Rosa to teach me because I thought that she could teach me to make bagels. Jon and I were recently treated to a Rosa-made dinner, which consisted of, among many other things, the most fascinating dip of Yugoslavian base that I have ever tasted, a row of unbelievably perfectly formed square beet nibblets, and the coup d’etat: Homemade bagels, our choice of poppy-seed or normal, and we had one of each thank-you-very-much, smothered in capers, cream cheese and smoked salmon. Jon went home in a stupefied daze, much like the one after intercourse, and I figured it I don’t want to loose my husband before I’ve even married him, I’d better learn how to make those damned things!
Alas, other women caught wind of the bread-baking idea and the logistics of bagels had them thrown out for an easier "Basic" bread recipe to start with.
Rosa taught four of us, in teams of two, how to make a traditional Plait. Her secret ingredient was a drop of Kirsch, which is actually the real recipe, but something that bakeries probably don’t even include anymore.
There was much mixing, setting, kneading, laughing, poking, basting, laughing and then there was a special course of Lemon-Ricotta Pesto and Spaghetti that we made, then dined on while the dough rose for an hour or so.
My plait was lumpy and misshapen because my three rolls were not uniform. Rosa’s was perfect, which is to be expected since she makes bread once or twice a week (You should see her biceps!), and just because she’s Rosa. However, there is nothing more annoying that a person who makes a perfect plait the first time trying.
Here is Stephanie, making a perfect plait her first time trying.
Here is Rosa’s, or it could be any of the other womens’ just not mine, loaf, under wraps in a cool, dry place.
Et, voila! The final product (Don’t worry, I didn’t let him get any closer!) Actually, at the end of the day – and it was a "day," this bread took us five hours including all the pauses for explanation and pauses for tangent-stories that females are apt to toss out – I had a fabulous time making bread. Jon says that I will fail the next three times that I make it. "That’s bread," he said. "It only worked because there was an expert in the kitchen. You’ll have to fail many times before you learn."
Maybe I’ll just stick to my Wasa crackers.