I am a big fan of the Great British Baking Show (GBBS). I have been watching it since it first appeared on PBS, and now binge watch episodes on my streaming platform. I have to say that I am not a baker, but I so appreciate learning the ins and outs of what it takes to make these tasty morsels.
I am particularly enamored with bread making. It seems to be an essential skill. During these past months of COVID, the increase in people making bread has become a phenomenon all its own. I almost succumbed myself, but was stymied by my inability to find yeast! Fortunately, I have a dear friend who sent me some, and I was once again able to rest easy.
I first started making my own bread back in the 1970s. One of the popular cookbooks of the time was Laurel’s Kitchen and she wrote lovingly about mixing whole wheat flour together with yeast and kneading it and letting it rise. At the time I did not know this was called proofing. My first efforts resulted in brick loaves because I really did not thoroughly grasp the concept of proofing.
It wasn’t until I had watched several episodes of GBBS that my education was completed. The ovens in the tent (you really have to watch the show to understand what I am talking about) actually come with proofing drawers. To the uninitiated, these are incubators for yeast dough that keep a steady temperature and moisture level that encourages the spectacular growth of what Laurel used to call, “yeastie-beasties”. In the proofing drawer it is actually possible for the dough to double in size.
Never having had a proofing drawer in my kitchen left me with stunted dough that while tasty (if slathered with enough butter and honey) never fully reached the airy potential of the loaves I saw in pictures. I still do not have a proofing drawer, but I now understand the need for sufficient time and temperature control in order to encourage the dough to rise.
The Second Proof
The second and vitally important step in baking a good loaf of bread is actually found in the second proof. Here the initial gaseous conglomerate of dough is beaten down and kneaded into submission. In my virgin phases of bread making, I was too tender with my beating and kneading, thinking that by being gentle I would somehow achieve a soft and chewy consistency rather than the coarse, heavy loaves that kept coming out of my oven.
Again, thanks to Paul Hollywood, I now understand that I can let out my inner aggressor and punch that dough down and slap it silly while ridding it of excess air. Without being punched, rolled, and kneaded beyond belief, the yeast will not respond as well. Somehow, in this energetic process, the yeast becomes temporarily stunned, but bounces back even stronger in the second proof.
This is where the bread maker returns the now tamed and tempered dough to the bowl and waits for its resurrection before putting it in the oven to bake. The second proof takes patience and faith. Especially if you don’t have a proofing drawer. Because, it truth, the yeast is a bit temperamental. It does not mind the beating, but if the temperature is not just right, it will give up the ghost and not rise at all.
Bread as Metaphor
It occurred to me that bread making was the perfect metaphor for the pandemic experience. Just like on GBBS, we are all in the same tent and following pretty much the same recipe. But some of us are at different stages in the process, and some of us have used different techniques.
We seem to have made it through its initial rise. Those of us who have had our vaccines can punch down the virus and keep it contained. We still need to wait to see if it will rise again, or if it was sufficiently kneaded into submission to make it ready for the baking phase. This means we need to be patient.
For the impatient among us who don’t or won’t wait long enough, the bake will come out like my initial loaves – not useful for much and needing to be thrown away. These are the folks who are putting us all at risk, at least in the short-term, and allowing the virus continued footholds for mutating.
For those who do wait, there will be the satisfaction of having successfully made it through the pandemic. They will have gained in experience and will have the knowledge that the steps they took in protecting themselves, while exacting a high price, turned out to be effective.
Testing Our Patience and Faith
This pandemic continues to challenge our daily lives in ways that are unexpected. Like waiting for the second proof, it has tested our patience and our faith. It has required new ways of thinking, new strategies for intervening, and putting trust in people who may or may not have had our best interests in mind.
Without a doubt, there were a number of mistakes made along the way. All recipes need to be tested. Some people who thought they knew how to make a loaf of bread found out that their way didn’t work so well. Others who knew absolutely nothing about baking bread talked a good game, and ended up finding out it is not as easy as it seems.
It is still too early to tell how this loaf will come out. We haven’t gotten to actually baking it yet. We are still in the second proof. But, if we are patient, and if we have faith, and if we bake the loaf well, there will not be any soggy bottoms, raw dough, or poorly formed interiors.
We will have made a bake worthy of a Paul Hollywood handshake.