Breaking bread with grandma
No two people make the same kind of bread as each loaf has a unique personality that it takes on from its creator. Memories of a taste then remain mere touchstones that we aspire to recreate
There is a kind of happiness I feel sometimes. I know the precise sensation of it, but I don’t think I can describe it right.
I name it “feeling bodily happy” because it is not a satisfaction that lives in the dimension of ideas. It makes my muscles feel comfortable, my lungs breath fully, my face becomes rosy and my circulation calms down. For a few moments, nothing is amiss.
To bask in the winter sun brings that, as do Sunday lunches. So do early morning bus rides to still unknown towns. Or attending a concert of my favorite band. And… the smell of baking bread. From the things that evoke good feelings before my brain gets the chance to elaborate it into words, a bread-scented house is the easiest one to find.
When we were little and my grandmother came to take care of us, all kinds of everyday delicacies would emerge out of the kitchen. But the bread she would make for the week remain imprinted in my memory in a special way.
I remember sometimes we would drive to Corupá, a nearby town, to buy molasses and bananas from the farmers. I recall the simple shed and the unpaved streets. The way people talked there. And the tall round bread, with dark crusts and a heavenly scent, sliced right out of the oven, had as an afternoon snack with fresh cream and molasses.
The bread in my first memories are made entirely with refined all-purpose flour, though my grandma started to bake whole wheat bread soon after that, with seeds, nuts and dried fruits added to the dough. It is an unforgettable taste, still lingering in my mouth to this day.
People who have been baking bread for years are not concerned about measurements. They perceive everything with their eyes and touch. That’s why the bread acquires a personality, which becomes difficult for another person to recreate. Even so, from time to time, I experiment trying to bake a bread like my grandmother’s, until I manage to reach a version with a personality that comes from me.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cup lukewarm filtered water
1 tablespoon dry active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
(Cup measure: 250ml | Tablespoon measure: 15ml | Teaspoon measure: 5ml)
In a deep bowl, I pour 1 ½ cup of lukewarm filtered water, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of dry active yeast, and give it a stir with a wooden spoon. I measure 3 cups of all-purpose flour, add one cup at a time to the liquid mixture, making sure the dough remains smooth. Then I sprinkle 2 teaspoons of sea salt and stir to incorporate.
I measure 1 cup of all-purpose flour and dust my workspace with some of it, then transfer the dough to the surface.
I knead the dough kindly, pushing it away with the heel of one hand and pulling it back with my fingers and palm. Then I repeat the movement with the other hand. That’s how I learned to knead, watching my grandma. If I need to, I add more flour little by little (from the last cup I measured), to make sure the dough won’t stick to my hands or to the counter.
It usually gets ready after about 10 minutes of kneading.
I sprinkle some more flour on the counter, flatten the dough, then fold its edges towards the centre. I turn the dough seam-side down and gently spin it, tucking the sides down to increase the surface tension and shaping it into a ball. Then I grease the loaf, place it in a clean bowl, cover it with plastic and put it away to rise in a warm, wind-free spot. The dough should rest until it doubles in volume. It takes about 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the room temperature.
Once it rises, I take the dough out. I gently flatten it again on the floured counter, fold and shape it as a ball. I grease and flour a baking tray (my grandmother would use a round, 23cm pan, I use a rectangular 25x30cm tray), transfer the dough to it and allow it to rise for the second time.
When the dough doubles in volume, I heat the oven to 250℃. If the oven has a top burner/grill, I set it to full power.
I bake the bread at this high temperature for 10 minutes or until brown spots start to appear on its surface. Then, I lower the temperature to 180℃ and set the top burner to the minimum power, baking for 40 more minutes.
The bread is almost done when a delightful smell spreads around the house. To confirm that it’s ready, I knock on the bread’s crust as I would knock on a door. If a dry and hollow “knock, knock” sound comes back, then it’s done.
Once the bread is out of the oven, I follow my grandma’s example and brush its crust with some water or cover it in a damp tea towel for 20 minutes to soften it.
Then, all I’ve got left to do is slice and take a bite, with some cream and molasses, to go back in time. Although my bread doesn’t match up to hers, it has acquired a unique taste and personality. I would like to believe that that’s because it has both a bit of her and a bit of me.
Flora Refosco has been writing the blog É o que tem pra Hoje (What’s In for Today) since 2010. Through friends and family, books, travel, street food, markets, conversation and dining experiences, Flora is always seeking to learn about food and what it does to us — how it relates to our physical and mental wellbeing, autonomy, pleasure, sustainability, identity, and health — and to share her discoveries. Flora, who grew up in Santa Catarina, in the south of Brazil, loves the challenge of working with the ingredients she has on hand and trying to combine them into simple and tasty meals while listening to or telling stories at the table.
Maya Pillai is a User Experience Designer at Houston Inc. and lives in Helsinki, Finland. Currently, she is also working on herMaster’s thesis at the Aalto Media Lab through which she is exploring podcasting as a medium to further the conversation around gender activism in South Asia.