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The bread-baking frenzy

Dear reader, I’ve been wielding the tools of anthropology haphazardly again.

Lately I’ve noticed that every time I cross paths with women of a certain age, the conversation ends the same way. After a few moments of pleasant exchange, talk comes to an abrupt halt with the following exclamation: “Oh Molly, you’re baking? I used to bake bread too! For years, I baked every loaf we ate!” Without fail, in the seconds that follow, her eyes glaze over, her pulse visibly quickens, and she lets slip a telltale sigh that settles into silence. This is more than a simple fit of nostalgia. I know, because I am what these women used to be. What they wistfully recall, and what I embody, is an as-yet-undocumented stage in the development of the human female: the bread-baking frenzy.* As you can see, I will make my mark on anthropology yet.

With no further ado, I present the evidence.
Margot, the source of all things sourdough, has no fewer than five loaves in her freezer at all times. She is a machine. And Kate, her little sister, is also producing like there’s no tomorrow: she’s up at six in the morning to bake boules for her father, and in one of her more brilliant schemes, she’s trading bread for sashimi-grade ahi at Pike Place Market. Even Keaton, a self-proclaimed non-baker, recently made a loaf or two. And as for me, ever since that momentous evening in October when Margot gave me a jar of starter, I too have been compelled by a mysterious inner drive—something visceral and inarticulate, something that doesn’t ask but tells. I must bake bread. I must, I must, I must.

In the beginning, there was Jack Lang’s sourdough method, a lean dough baked into a rustic boule which, when well-behaved, quite nearly made a (pioneer) woman out of me. But unfortunately, it’s not well-behaved very often. My sourdough starter is tough to please and very temperamental. It gets lonely. It gets cold easily. It wants more food. My Jack Lang bread is like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s gummy.

Not being one to take failure well, I’ve kept these dark moments from you, gentle reader, and I’ve sought solace in the company of another: Fleischmann’s active dry yeast. I’ve retreated into Rancho La Puerta whole wheat bread, dense, delicious, and reliable, and last Friday night, I stayed home with my oven and two loaves of honey gold oatmeal bread.

This tall, nutty loaf not only brings together all kinds of tasty, wholesome stuff—milk, honey, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, oats—but it invites my lonely, prissy sourdough starter in from the cold to get cozy with a strong, dependable package of yeast. It was quite a Friday night for all of us.

And Saturday afternoon, after a good night's rest, I tucked two slices into a sandwich bag and headed out to meet Margot and Kate at Pioneer Square Park (or, as Kate explained over the phone, “le parc où tous les hommes font pipi” (the park where all the [drunk] men pee); we’re practicing our French together, and Kate is really outdoing herself). It was sunny but deceptively cold, and the lovely sisters were waiting for me on a bench, squinting happily into the light. I handed over the slices for their inspection. They inhaled them solemnly, thoughtfully, co-conspirators in a very serious mission.

And then we spent the afternoon as one would expect, walking the city and talking bread—give or take a few minor tangents involving barbeque-pork hum bows, fresh tofu, and mini handcuffs for a roasted chicken. It was beautiful, an afternoon for the social science books. We’re in it together, fervent and frenzied, until the next stage.

* The bread-baking frenzy generally occurs between ages 22 and 35, after college and before the kids start school. It is occasionally seen to be coterminous with the knitting stage, although the two should not be conflated.

Honey Gold Oatmeal Bread
Adapted from Knight Family Recipes 2005, which in turn excerpted from Sourdough Jack’s Cookery

Last Christmas, Kate officially brought me into the clan by giving me a copy of her family’s recipe book. This is serious stuff, and I feel a bit more sappy about it than I should probably admit.

Although the book includes such tempting offerings as RAGBRAI Cinnamon Rolls, Lilly’s Lentil Salad, Boyfriend Pork Chops, Bruna’s Flan, and a Chinese Salmon Sauce that includes a fire hazard warning, I’m starting simple. And anyway, I’ve got a frenzy to work through.

1 cup sourdough starter (if you don’t have a stash in your fridge, let me know; we’ll talk options)
2 cups warm water
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (any fat percentage should be fine; I used nonfat)
2 Tbs butter or oil (I used walnut oil, which gave the bread a wonderfully nutty quality)
¼ cup honey
1 package active dry yeast
2 cups whole wheat flour
¼ cup wheat germ
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
2 cups quick-cook oats (not rolled oats)

The night before you want to bake the bread, mix together in a large bowl the starter, the warm water, and 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour. Mix well, but it’s alright if it’s a bit lumpy; fermentation will smooth it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it stand in a warm place for at least 12 hours. This will be your “basic batter.”

When you are ready to begin the dough, remove a cup of the basic batter from the bowl and return it to your starter pot in the refrigerator. Spray two 8- by 5-inch loaf pans with cooking spray.

Pour the milk into a small saucepan, and bring it to a near boil over low to medium heat. Remove it from the heat, and stir in butter or oil and honey. Allow it to cool to lukewarm, and then add the yeast, stirring until dissolved. Stir the milk-yeast mixture into the bowl of basic batter; then stir in the wheat flour and wheat germ. Blend salt and soda in a small bowl and sprinkle it over the dough. Stir it in gently, and then set the bowl of dough aside to rest in a warm spot, covered with a cloth, for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stir the dough down with a wooden spoon. Add the remaining 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2 cups of oats. If the dough is still very loose and sticky, add a bit more flour, but keep in mind that this dough is just a sticky one. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny, adding flour as necessary—too little is better than too much, but you may have to add more than you'd think. [Do not knead too long or include too much flour, or the bread will be heavy and dry; you’re aiming for a nice, elastic dough that doesn’t stick to your hands too terribly.]

Cut the dough into two equal portions, flour them lightly, and tuck and shape them into fat cylinders. Place the loaves in the pans, cover them with a cloth, and let them rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until doubled in bulk. Bake the loaves at 400 degrees for 20 minutes; then decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking until the bread is golden and sounds hollow when thumped, about 15-25 minutes more. Remove the loaves from the oven, turn them out onto a rack, and let cool (at least a little bit) before eating.

Yield: 2 loaves.


Blogger amylou said...

Intriguing study, maybe you've found a new topic for your master's?

I won't lie. I long to be included in this bread-baking frenzy. It just sounds so damn womanly. Can I consider myself fully immersed in the bread stage if the only dough I routinely make is for biscuits (no yeast) and pizza?

If it makes my case any more convincing (ie usable in your study), the pizza dough does involve fresh yeast, making a sponge, and a long rising time.

11:36 PM, February 25, 2005  
Blogger LeeLoreya said...

perhaps that this frenzy occurs before having kids in order to help young girls prepare to take care of a living creature (yeast), nurture it, cherish it, knead it voluptuously, soothingly, and then letting it have a good night's rest. Then, the next day, accompany it gently in the oven, like on a child's first day of school, sad and proud at the same time...

1:29 AM, February 26, 2005  
Anonymous Lisa said...

I, too, have been in the "frenzy." I think it's one of the only times my head is clear and I enter an almost meditative state. You are only focused on the dough. It's very therapeutic.

BTW, I don't remember how my path led me here, but I really enjoy your writing!

6:28 AM, February 26, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Amy, pizza dough absolutely counts. I mean, it's yeast, honey! And you said the word "sponge"! Yours is a frenzy if I've ever seen one. We do need to get you some sourdough starter, though. We'll talk.

And LeeLoreya, I think you may be onto something. But thank goodness for the fact that bread doesn't cry--and it reaches full maturity only hours (or at most a day or so) after its birth. Whew.

And Lisa, thanks for coming to visit! I agree--bread-baking is very therapeutic, especially the more comfortable you become with the dough, how it should feel, etc. The first couple of tries with a new recipe are always a bit, well, less than therapeutic for me, but after that, my hands develop a sort of tactile memory.

9:00 AM, February 26, 2005  
Blogger {m} said...

So much good things to read here!

6:15 AM, February 27, 2005  
Anonymous dave said...

Hey Molly,
Great looking loaves. I'm 41 and still bake every day (almost) and I also use the sinful active dry.

There's nothing to feel guilty over, it's the same organism, just atomized from a solution and carefully spray-dried by the best technology has to offer the food industry. To hell with the people who think they're better because they use "no yeast". Besides, it's worth a few years in pergatory to get the reproducibility.

5:37 PM, February 27, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Dave, thank you for the moral support about yeast! I do struggle with a bit of guilt. It's just so EASY...shouldn't that make it wrong? I'll have to work on this complex of mine.

Also, I want to apologize for leaving the male gender out of my grand, sweeping anthropological proclamation. I have known quite a few talented and devoted male bakers such as yourself. I should revise my theories. But that would be much less fun.

8:58 PM, February 28, 2005  
Anonymous dave said...

No sweat. And, I should learn how to spell purgatory.

7:53 AM, March 01, 2005  
Anonymous Helen said...

Molly, my bread days were in high school, baking "friendship" bread from starters that were passed around the neighborhood, as well as small simple loaves of bread that were little more than flour and water. Interestingly, this is when I started crocheting as well.

Now, do you consider bread machines to be evil, or tools to help more people make better bread?

12:41 PM, March 07, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Helen, you were clearly ahead of your time. Too bad we didn't know each other in your bread-baking days. [Sigh.] But three cheers for corroboration of my knitting stage addendum! I am so happy to have benefited from your knitting and crocheting. Remember my "Michael Jackson" socks and the "obituary" I sent you when they bit the dust? I loved those socks.

And as for bread machines, oh no, I would never condemn them. I am in no way anti-tool. I think I'd support most anything--within reason, of course--that helps and encourages people to bake bread. The only problem with bread machines is that they produce oddly shaped loaves. Hmph. Plus, if you like the tactile aspects of baking, you miss out...

8:13 AM, March 08, 2005  
Blogger aja-ng said...

None of my friends(I'm 21) understood my baking frenzy when i went through it, it consumed me, every hour,everyday. i would stay up weeknights, come back from work at lunch to check my starter.At work I would call every half-hour to check if the dough was rising...I'm so glad that there are other people out there who are like me.Makes one feel a lot less lonely.

In malaysia, sourdough is almost unheard of so, fat chance finding a starter anywhere, i got frustrated and just tried leaving a jar of flour and water out for a few days and it worked!wanna send some down?

Very nice blog.thanks for giving me the pleasure.

7:01 AM, March 15, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Aja, that is one serious frenzy! Sounds delicious. Thanks for stopping by and commenting...

7:50 AM, March 15, 2005  
Anonymous Glenn said...

Molly...is it natural for a straight man to go through a baking phase as well? After reading all of your posts up to this point (I came to your party late I'm afraid), I have the overwhelming urge to bake and bake some more! I have two problems though - first I do not have the starter for this recipe, and secondly, avoiding carbs is the only way I have found to keep my waistline from annexing more territory. Any help from you would be appreciated.

PS. Could you love a Red State man from Houston, TX?

10:16 AM, November 03, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

don't feel guilty about active dry yeast, molly. i use saf-instant myself! OOPS! =D

glenn, take my word for it...sexy is a man who knows how to bake!

1:50 AM, November 05, 2006  
Blogger ss.sputnik said...

I'm just a woman who hit a frenzy?

Oh so be it! I just started baking bread & I love it! Stuck on making pizza, too.

Glad to have found your site!

11:11 AM, January 05, 2008  
Blogger Stacia said...


I have it in my mind to make as much of our food at home this year as possible. I have been seized by this female gatekeeper of bread baking and recalled reading this post some months ago in your archives. So, coming to your recipe index this morning, my sleeves up around my elbows ready to start baking my first loaf of bread, I read about his Sourdough Starter. You can imagine my disappointment...

So, I'll bite...can we talk? ;)

Stacia Weller

9:51 AM, August 28, 2008  
Anonymous Hammergirl said...

I have allowed myself to delve even deeper into the bread baking frenzy - i used to be a diehard Tassajara dried yeast- make- it -in -a -day kind of woman. But now after years of schlepping the Le Brea Nancy Silverton bread book around i finally took the plunge into a big plastic tub of water, flour and fermented grapes. It has become an obsession i am afraid. Nothing brings more joy than an evening feed of sourdough starter when it is so bubbly and happy to see you.
I don't think i fit into the age category or stage of child - 40 with a three year old girl ( i hope she catches the bug too ) in childcare. I am a metalsmith and I work out of my shed behind the house in Adelaide, Australia. Mid -day feeding for starter are easy for me, multi-tasking constantly.
I decided after batch #5 with the sour dough starter to branch out into bagels. Woke up at 5:15 am wondering if i should get up and start them so we could all have warm fresh out of the oven bagels for brekky. They turned out pretty well ! I am sold on sourdough, despite all its fussiness, and neediness and days and days before the actual bread gets baked.

7:28 PM, November 20, 2008  
Blogger Isabelle said...

I know I'm late commenting here but I find your hypothesis quite amusing. You could say I am in the midst of my own bread-baking frenzy, and I certainly fit the mold! I am 24, out of college, no kids yet. I don't know if I'd call it an actual frenzy though. I can't imagine having five loaves waiting in my freezer, although the thought of it makes me extremely happy.

The breads I've made so far are all definitely on the easy side of things: the famous no-knead bread, Laurie Colwin's easy bread that you can let rise as long or as short as you want, and a few recipes from my Deborah Madison cookbok. I feel like I've already had my fair share of bread disasters though - mainly the dough refusing to rise in our chilly apartment. The idea of sourdough starter kind of scares me, so I haven't attempted that but have been relying on good ol' yeast. There are lots of breads I really want to make though, at least before this phase ends.

Thanks for all of your wonderful writing, I am a huge fan.

3:04 PM, January 17, 2009  
Anonymous sophie said...

Can we talk sourdough starter now?

5:23 PM, February 17, 2009  
Blogger Molly said...

Sophie, are you looking for some sourdough starter? If so, shoot me an e-mail at cheeseandchocolate (at) gmail (dot) com. I'll see what I can do.

9:05 PM, February 17, 2009  
Blogger hoperu said...

I just found you through the Times of London list (via Dorie Greenspan's blog) and can't wait to catch up. Everything I have seen looks so good!

I too am in the prime bread frenzy years, and bake bread at least once a week. I was sort of forced to do it in self defense after moving last year to a town with no good bread. I've kept it up after another move to another town with sub-par bread. Now, I couldn't go back (except for the Three Girls Bakery in Pike Place Market).

This recipe is an awful lot like one I have from my mother, just without the sourdough starter. I wrote about it back in October:

11:44 AM, February 18, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how do i print simply the recipe, no comments etc? can't seem to find a print area?

6:44 PM, March 15, 2009  
Blogger sj said...

Hi. 5 years after the original post, I've found you. I've also survived the bread-baking frenzy, still revisit from time to time. But here's what fascinates me: I recently became a certified massage therapist. During my training, we learned tummy rubs. The first time I did one, I kept wondering, "Why is this so familiar? Why is this so evocative?" I finally figured it out: the tummy felt exactly like fresh, warm dough, and I was feeling the exact same love and connection I always felt when kneading that living, breathing, beloved dough! Every time I do a tummy rub,I have this same healiing experience.

11:41 AM, July 28, 2010  
Blogger mysonglines said...

Hi Molly,

This is the first time that I have written on a blog, but felt compelled to do so. I am halfway through your book, "A Homemade Life", and I am thoroughly enjoying it--you write with such warmth and love about your family and friends, and you have put to words so well how food, family and friends are intricately connected. I am a little (make that a lot) older than you and most of the folks who have written to you--so I am on my second "frenzy-go-round" of baking bread and knitting. On the subject of instant yeast--do we all use electric washing machines to clean our clothes? I, for one, have no desire to do my laundry with a scrub board in an icy creek in the dead of winter nor in the warmth of summer for that matter. It seems to me that if something makes life a little easier and does no great harm, there is nothing wrong with using it. I look forward to reading more of your blog and trying out some of the recipes--the first will probably be the Honey Gold Oatmeal Bread. Thank you. Lisa

2:41 PM, July 29, 2010  
Anonymous laurenb said...

are you still willing to provide some help with sourdough starter? : )

7:12 PM, October 25, 2010  
Blogger Molly said...

laurenb, I have to admit that I haven't done a good job of tending to my starter lately, and though there was a time when I would have offered to mail you some, you probably wouldn't want it now! You might try looking into buying some from King Arthur, the flour company. They sell it through their website.

5:59 PM, October 28, 2010  
Blogger Nancy B said...

I love the K.A.F. starter... and have recently started a second wind of baking... I got sick of reading more chemicals than ingredients in the commercial loaved... even the ones coming out of the in shop "bakery" at the local grocery store has preservatives and cellulose?

I mixed up the recipe a bit and added honey to the first sponge... now making a cinnamon raisin 3rd loaf out of the cup removed :-)!

10:22 AM, June 08, 2013  

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