Ma Ingalls Would Have Wiped the Floor With My Homemade Bread
Quarantine baking will not automatically turn you into the perfect prairie housewife.
There’s something about being quarantined during a pandemic that inexplicably brings out the Suzy Homemaker in many of us.
Maybe it’s the fact that seeing the interior of your own house all day, every day, for weeks on end, makes you feel peckish. Maybe it’s the fact that grocery shopping becomes a planned, orchestrated, hotly anticipated event comparable to Oscar night or the Triple Crown. Maybe it’s the itch to pick up a new hobby, something of which you can modestly snap 300 photos, select the best one, filter it within an inch of its life, and casually pop into your Instagram feed with a nonchalant, “oh, this? Just whipped that up this afternoon. From scratch. In my spotless kitchen with my thriving plants soaking sun on the windowsill, classical music playing merrily on Spotify Premium because I totally pay for that, while wearing this chic vintage apron.”
Or maybe it’s the fact that the bread aisle is stripped bare, often as not, and you need to make sandwiches this week, doggone it.
No matter the reason, I feel you. I was you. I am you. I, too, succumb weekly to the tantalizing siren call of that elusive, home-baked loaf of bread. Fresh, warm, glutinous, pure carbohydrate. Slathered with home-churned butter — okay, I haven’t gotten that far.
But if Caroline Ingalls, gentle and indefatigable pioneer Ma of Little House on the Prairie fame, could do this in a log cabin with a cast-iron stove and an array of spunky little girls in calico and braids getting underfoot and wreaking havoc with their good old bulldog Jack, I should be able to turn out one passable loaf with the help of all my modern conveniences and Pinterest trove of recipes. I’ve been cooking dinners and making desserts for fifteen years. A loaf of bread cannot be that hard. It’s, like, five ingredients.
Yeast and water, for starters: the magic leavening, in theory at least. The key lies in water that is warm, but not too warm, just enough to stimulate the yeast but not enough to brutally drown it. Despite having a clean, shiny hot water faucet at my fingertips, which I can use to regulate temperature at will, this is still one of three banes of my breadmaking. I end up splashing a warm-ish, kinda-hot-but-not-really helping into a measuring cup and hope for the best. Caroline Ingalls probably had to stick a tin cup on a windowsill to catch a few sun rays or something like that. Or maybe her yeast was mutant yeast in the days before GMOs and it leavened the bread without illicit aid from warm water. Or did she even use yeast? If she did, she probably trekked forty miles to town to buy enough for the next year, then stored it in a crock in the root cellar. My yeast came from Aldi in a non-biodegradable individual packet, pre-measured because I’m a lazy millennial and apparently I hate the earth.
I don’t add any kind of fat or oil to my dough because I care about my health and my blood pressure and my cholesterol levels, and Caroline Ingalls didn’t have baking fat to spare, and I’m hardcore like she was. (Just kidding, I use the Betty Crocker cookbook and it doesn’t call for any oil so… whatever.)
My white all-purpose flour is a wimp of Pillsbury proportions compared to what Caroline — yeah, I call her Caroline now, we’re on a first-name basis at this point — would have hand-cranked from wheat kernels in a coffee grinder. I still manage to make more of a mess of it than she probably ever did in fifty years of hardscrabble cooking. It gets everywhere, it turns into sludge as soon as I attack the film on the countertop with a wet dishcloth, and now it’s on the bottom of my socks.
But my dough turns into a gloppy, sloppy, sticky mass eventually, with a little sugar and salt thrown in, and the kneading process is where I hit my second roadblock. How much is too much? Betty Crocker says to knead for ten minutes, but my mom said not to over-handle the dough, and my mom is a real person (like Caroline) and Betty was a fake conglomeration of the 1950’s cult of domesticity, so who to believe? I end up flapping it and pounding it around on the counter so I can feel more like a 19th-century housewife, (yeah, I have an electric mixer, but Caroline sure didn’t) and now it has to rise. Bane #3.
The gas oven I use would have been a marvel to Caroline, who probably plopped her bread dough in a wooden bowl and put it on the back of her wood-burning stove to rise and just prayed the dog wouldn’t lick it. I preheat my oven and then turn it off really quickly to maintain a level of warmth that will hopefully comfort and coddle my bread dough without scalding it and brutally roasting it. Or melting my decidedly modern plastic bowl.
Then I wait and watch Netflix. I’m not even gonna try to speculate on what Caroline would think of that. Ninety minutes pass.
It didn’t rise properly. It kinda did, but it’s mostly still the same size. Rats.
So I flip it into a greased bread pan (made slick with PAM, not lard) and let it rise for another 90 minutes, and you guessed it — still flat. There’s nothing left to do but bake it. Which I do, thanking Heaven for the gift of running water and Dawn dish detergent because washing up all the utensils I dirtied in this process in an outdoor washtub with tepid water hauled from a creek sounds like the absolute worst way to spend an afternoon.
The end result, once I actually get it out of a pan: meh.
I’m not kidding when I say Caroline probably would wipe the floor with this. Rags and mop buckets were hard to come by on the barren South Dakota prairie, folks.
On the flip side, her first loaf probably wasn’t that great either, and in these hard times we, like the Ingalls, have to eat what is set before us. I’ll remind my husband of this when he looks skeptically at the unintentionally trendy flatbread I serve up for dinner tonight.
Tune in next week for homemade antibacterial soap concocted from lye and pig fat, the old-fashioned frontier version of hand sanitizer! Can’t be too hard, right?