It Gets Butter: They Think It’s Magic, That’s What It Feels Like, Bread

by: Lindsay Popper


Bea’s mother pulled a tupperware out of the fridge door and scraped a small handful of dough out of it into a bowl. As her hands worked water into it, she told me about the bread: how it was a sourdough, and instead of using store-bought yeast, each loaf was started with some leftover dough from the last batch. This particular strand, she said, was started sometime before Beatrice was born. Beatrice is in college now.

The trick is that the air is full of yeast (also bacteria, viruses, dust, mold, pollen, and a fair amount of skin cells, but that’s another story), which, if properly captured, provides the magic that creates wine, beer, sauerkraut, or, in our case, bread. Air everywhere is full of yeast, but different strains populate different parts of the world. The yeast in San Francisco is different from the yeast in the air in Paris or Louisville or Oakland, Maine (where Bea’s mom lives). Each yeast digests the wheat a bit differently, and thus each yeast imparts a distinct flavor to bread. As she moved across the country, she explained, the bread–which she continued to bake from the same recipe, saving a bit of dough from each batch for the next–would start to taste different. I was captivated.

Step 1: In a small bowl, mix 1 cup flour with 1/4 cup water. Stir until blended, then knead on a floured board for about five minutes. It should be fairly soft and sticky. Let it sit in the bowl, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap, at room temperature, for about 3 days. It won’t seem like anything is happening; this is where you have to just trust, and wait.

A long time know I’ve wanted to learn how to bake bread. The main thing stopping me was fear. Cookies, or muffins, or lentil stew–all were less intimidating, because they were less alive. They were controllable. I was sure that my bread would fail, and that that failure would somehow haunt me forever, would mark me, would stick with me. Fears get out of hand pretty quickly in my head.

Upon finishing the loaf I brought back from Maine, I decided to make the first batch of this bread during my first week of graduate school, which was also my first week living in a new collective house with new people in a new city (not entirely true: I had been born here, but left when I was six months old). There were enough other things up in the air, enough other things to be afraid of.

Step 2: In a medium bowl, add 1/2 cup lukewarm water to the starter and mush it around with your hands. Add 1 1/2 cups flour and mix it until it all sticks together. Dump all of it onto a floured board and knead it for about five minutes; it should be firm but not stiff. Return it to the bowl, and let it sit for about 24 hours at room temperature, covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap.

My friend Martha, pregnant and living in a homestead in rural Wisconsin, tried to teach me how to make challah bread. I scribbled instructions down on the backside of a seed-catalog order form, including all of her notes (for example, that lukewarm water should be, “you know, like the temperature inside a vagina”). She said that kneading bread was like making love: you use your whole body, you push with your hips. It was all a little much for me. I never tried it.

But when Bea’s mom made bread, it was more like she was winning a fight than having sex: it involved pitching it fast towards the counter so that it makes a loud slap. Her hands move quickly, and there was a deft violence to the rhythm: smack, press, scoop, lift, smack. She noticed me flinch.

She’s a calm and gentle woman; she sings in the church choir, reads Wendell Berry, sends me Hallmark cards every holiday. She says that the fact that she kneads bread like this is probably the reason she’s so calm the rest of the time. She gets all her anger out here.

I watched her throw the dough, hard, against the stone. I figured it was something I could try.

Step 3:
In a large bowl, mush the dough around with 1 1/2 cups water and 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add 3 or 4 cups of flour, a cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Knead the dough for five to ten minutes, adding more flour as necessary. It’ll be soft and sticky; by the end you should have added just enough flour that it’s not sticking to your fingers. Cover and let rise for 8-12 hours.

Three months after I perched on the stool in Sharon’s kitchen, I was biking through the busy intersection at Coolidge Corner with a hiking backpack slung over my shoulders. As I maneuvered cautiously over the T tracks, I balanced the weight of my laptop, groceries from two stores, my Biblical Hebrew textbook, and two baskets of cloth-wrapped rising loaves of sourdough. It was my turn to make dinner for Bible study, and if I was going to make chili, I wanted fresh bread to go along with it.

I chopped and stewed and baked in Ryan’s empty kitchen, and was more than a little self-satisfied when folks came up the stairs, one by one, shedding bike helmets and scarves and all the layers winter in Boston requires, exclaiming, “whoa. It smells so good in here.” I don’t bake bread because of the recognition. Not exactly. But the fact that something that seems so second-nature to me by now inspires nothing short of awe is definitely worth noting.

Step 4: Pull off a small handful of dough and keep it in the fridge for the next batch (you’ll start at step 2 for the next loaf, and all subsequent loaves; this dough will keep for a week or two in the fridge). Transfer the dough to a very heavily floured board, and shape it into a tight ball by folding it over itself again and again. (I like to split the dough in half before this, and make two small loaves instead of one big one; it’s your call). Flour a dish towel and put it in a shallow bowl or basket (about 10 inches diameter if you’re doing one loaf; smaller if you’re doing two), and place the dough in the towel-lined basket. Fold the towel over the dough and let it sit in a warm place for 8-12 hours, again.

6:53. That’s what I have to set my alarm to if it takes 9 minutes for the oven to preheat, 50 minutes for the bread to bake, 4 minutes to pack up and get out the door, about 16 minutes to bike along the river to Sam and Sarah and Bryanna’s house, and I want to be there at 8:15. I leave one loaf on the counter for my roommates as they wake up, and bring the other with me wrapped in scarves so that it’s still steaming when we sit down for our weekly breakfast.

Step 5:Turn the loaf upside down onto a flour-dusted baking sheet. Cut some lines in the top so the bread can expand while baking. Bake for about an hour at 375 F, until it’s golden-brown and the crust is hard.

They treat it like I’ve done some magic, and to tell the truth, that’s sort of what bread feels like, even though I turn out four or six loaves each week. I’m in awe of it all just as much as they are, and they thank me for it but I don’t tell them that it’s not for them I’m doing it. I need a chance every week to smack something down hard against the counter, to make noise like a war, to push against this life and  feel it push back against my hands and grow into something that I can put on the table in front of people who I’m learning to love in a strange city whose air is alive with the yeast that will make the dough rise and flavor it so it tastes like no where else in the world except here.


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