I wanted my mother's bread recipe. Her's was the best smell in the world, especially when it hit you when you came inside on Sunday afternoon after playing for hours in the snow. I wanted my children to have that experience. Plus I knew that eventually my mother would no longer be around to bake bread for me.
I sat her down one day and asked her to give me her bread recipe.
“I don’t know how I make bread," she said. "I've made it so many times I don’t even think about it."
I set a glass of wine in front of her, then pulled out a pad of paper and held a pen over it and waited.
"Hmph." She pursed her lips. "Well what kind of bread do you want to make?"
"Good bread, like yours."
She sighed. "I don't know. I like some with light rye and whole wheat and then I put a bit of this and that in it. I don’t know. Whatever I have in the cupboard."
I stared at her. "That's not a recipe."
“Oh - kay." She sipped her wine. "Let’s see. Two teaspoons yeast with a half cup of water. The water has to be hot but not too hot because then it won’t work. Then two cups altogether so there is corn syrup in there too. Maybe a couple of tablespoons, and it’s warm too."
“Wait." I said. "That's all the yeast part. And where's all the flour?"
"In the bowl! Oh my god. Where else are you going to put it?"
I held my tongue and watched her eyes wander upward and thought to myself she was catching a memory of making bread as a girl in Norway. "OK. Just a minute," she said. "Start with a cup of light rye, a cup of the white whole wheat, then mix in some of those other things."
“Mom, you have to tell me what those other things are.”
“I told you. What have you got in your cupboard? OK, ok. Geesh. I like wheat germ and bran if I have it. Or some soaked wheat kernels. Some flax seed now is good too. That's a cup of those. And then add the liquid and mix it in. If it’s too sticky, add more flour. See? Mostly rye. They like rye."
She paused and I wrote fast to get it all down.
“Got it? Oh-kay. Now," She took another sip of her wine and said, "put that out on the board with flour on there and knead it together good. See? Keep adding flour until it’s all nice and round."
She flexed and stretched her fingers to show me how she kneaded the dough. "See?"
I nodded. I'd memorized those small hands working bread dough into loaves, watched them roll, push, pat and pound, ever so gently.
"Then put it back in the bowl," she said. "I put that bowl in a warm place with a couple cloths on top and let it sit there for an hour at least, or so until it’s doubled. Then you can knead it again."
She sat back and took another long sip of wine and watched me read over my notes.
“One trick is to punch a little hole in the dough with your finger and hold a lit match in there. If the match blows out the dough is ready.” She laughed.
I looked at her and pursed my lips, not sure whether to add the part of the match trick. I'd never in my life seen my mother hold fire inside a loaf of bread. And I’ve never tried it so full warning, this may just have been her quirky sense of humour making that part up.
But the rest of her random recipe works. I can make bread without thinking about it now. And I can look back at my reluctance to even try to follow in the steps of my master bread-maker mother and smile. Because although my bread is never as good it's always delicious and makes my whole house smell like my childhood on a wintry Sunday afternoon.