The Bread of Affliction


In the darkest days of the pandemic, many of us, especially those without any other identifiable talents, retreated to the kitchen for diversion. This wasn’t a new beginning for me, just an intensification of activities that were already part of my regular routine. I’ve been baking bread since our years in New Hampshire more than fifty years ago. At the time, the only options at the supermarket were varieties of sliced, packaged white or whole wheat bread. Since then, the state has entered the international culinary culture and you can find everything from bagels to baguettes a short distance from even the most off-the-grid rural location. But then, baking was a matter of survival.

Over the years, I’ve refined my skills at baking challah, cinnamon bread and a simple kind of peasant loaf called, for reasons unclear to me, Cuban bread. The latter is so easy that I’ve done it with students in elementary school. I’ve even tried my hand at making bagels and pita, but in both cases what’s available in the store is better than my results, so I’ve abandoned my efforts in those areas, as was the case with rye bread where my efforts produced something more suited for use as a doorstop.

All of that came to a dead standstill when I was hit with my diagnosis of celiac disease. For me, the pleasure of bread baking was largely in kneading the dough until it could be shaped into a ball as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom. You can’t do that with gluten free breads because the dough is too sticky to be worked that way. Before celiac I just took it for granted that the magical gluten would do its work of binding the molecules in the flour together to produce the desired result.

I tried, Lord knows I tried, especially with the challah. I scoured the internet for gf challah recipes. Friends responding to my earlier writings on this subject sent me recipes but the results were dismal. First of all, there was no touching. Everything required beating with a mixer or a food processor, at least until the all-important braiding stage. My time- tested moves produced nothing but failure in this one small area that depended on manual dexterity. The sticky stuff just can’t be rolled in ways that enable the braid to maintain the necessary shape.

I have to admit here to a serious character defect. I did not persist. A friend made a challah loaf that both tasted and looked like the real thing. She had found just the right blend of brown rice flour, xanthum gum, potato starch and Lord knows what else, but in my longing for the good old days, I just shut down and stopped baking bread entirely. One day, I came across a YouTube video in which someone was demonstrating how to make gluten free artisanal bread. He was actually shaping the dough in the old familiar ways. That was almost enough to draw me out of my inertia, but not quite.

Today I had a small breakthrough triggered by two small unrelated events. The other day, Rosellen bought a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread from an amazing grocery store down the block where you can find every exotic product unavailable at Trader Joe’s, all in a space no bigger than the walk-in closet where Imelda Marcos kept her shoes. I encourage her to buy glutinous products like this one because there’s no reason she needs to give up these small pleasures because of me. When she toasted a piece for breakfast, the aroma was intoxicating. I relived the many times I had rolled out a slab of bread dough, covered it with a mix of cinnamon and sugar, rolled it up jelly roll-style, placed it in a bread pan along with three siblings and set them to baking. Soon the kitchen would fill with that same irresistible smell that almost forced you to pounce on the loaves as soon as they were cool enough to handle.

At the same time, I found in our pantry a box of King Arthur’s bread mix which a friend had gifted me in sympathy for my celiac diagnosis. I had ignored it for a very long time. It lookedinauthentic and needed a different name to distinguish it from the regal product that had sustained so many cultures for millennia. But that intoxicating smell had triggered wherever those fifty years of bread making were stored in my brain and I went into action.

The work had all the disappointing aspects I’ve described. The task of blending the ingredients to ready them for the bread pan was done by my hand mixer. I never laid a finger on it. Nonetheless, the kitchen was filled with the distinctive aroma of baking bread, although there was no cinnamon and sugar in sight. When I took it out of the oven to cool, Rosellen and I went out for a walk, and when we returned the treat of still warm bread awaited us. It was crustless and had the spongy texture of an Angel’s Food cake, but it was bread nonetheless.

So, maybe I’m ready now to shake off my lethargy and have another look at that gf artisanal baker video. Maybe after Passover.

Late breaking: After I wrote what’s above, my dear friend Gail Stern gifted me with an extraordinary loaf of gf bread. It leaves most regular bread in the dust. I have renewed hope for a better world and I await her recipe.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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