Around the Island

Charity’s column: Pandemic bread baking

My oven died one afternoon in March, just as an unbaked, perfectly-risen loaf of whole wheat rose over the edge of the proofing basket. The oven had been preheating for an hour, and I expected a singeing blast when I opened the door.

I needed 40 minutes of screaming heat to bake that loaf. What I got was a puff of air that wouldn’t melt butter. The electric oven coil had burnt out.

I’m a regular baker, producing a weekly supply for a bread eater who has been known to grab a loaf as he passes through the kitchen, and put it down half-eaten on his way out.

On the day that my oven died, all across this land, people were successfully preheating rarely-used ovens to bake loaves of sourdough bread that they had just learned to make. Flour and yeast shortages, and a manufacturer’s backlog in supplying new ovens, were evidence that the pandemic had turned a nation raised on Wonder Bread into wild yeast-wielding artisans.

With so much already going so wrong, my most important tool failed. I stepped outside, fired up the gas grill, plopped the loaf into a ceramic dish and closed the lid. I don’t recommend grilling bread, but once I trimmed off the scorched bottom, and sliced it thin, it was edible.

When I make bread, I take a single ingredient — grain, usually wheat, and add water to transform it into a starter — a slurry of water and flour that has been colonized by the microbial life in my kitchen. Tended by me, it flavors and raises the dough.

I call my starter “The Beast,” even though it’s actually a lot of beasts, really a barnyard in a pint container. The satisfaction I feel when I see that the bread is rising — or springing open like a flower in the oven — makes me feel there is some order in my life, even if the rest of the world is hard to understand.

Anyone who tells you they bake because they can’t find good bread is either picky, or has not looked hard enough. But I prefer to bake my own. So, armed with a YouTube tutorial, I attempted to replace the oven coil. Unfortunately, after I procured a replacement coil of the correct size, but before I could install it, the tempered glass in the oven door shattered.

The oven door may have been my fault. I MacGyvered a way to bake bread, by heating the oven to 500 degrees using the broiler, and turning it off once the bread went in. It worked pretty well, but the manual plainly stated that running the broiler for too long puts stress on the glass door, There was a lot of stress on both of us, but the glass oven door shattered first.

There are many good ways to take care of yourself in stressful times, and although baking bread works for me, it does not work for everyone. Some people pray on things that trouble them. Some watch old movies, or multi-part television series. When I couldn’t bake because of the oven thing, I had time to assemble a large jigsaw puzzle with pieces all the same size, and mostly shades of green. It was soothing to work on it, and satisfying when I completed it. It felt good to make order from chaos.

Once I accepted the idea of allowing masked people into my house in order to replace the stove, I started looking for a new one. There was extensive research, and a trip to Riverhead to see floor models of the finalists in three different big box stores, while avoiding contact with the sales associates.

When I found the right stove, the associate in the appliance department coughed repeatedly as she checked to see if it was in stock. Her eyes were red and watery over her mask, which gapped a little on the side. I decided to place my order online.

A week later, my new stove was delivered to a spot I had cleared in the middle of the kitchen, and a few days later, it was installed, but not until Carol Hallman at John’s Gas Service very patiently explained to me that out here, there are no gas lines running under the streets, and that the range required conversion from gas to propane. “We’ll make a country girl out of you yet,” Carol said.

I’m back in business, feeding “The Beast” every day, and baking every week. As long as my grain supply holds out, and the oven gets hot, I can make my bread. If jigsaw puzzles are not doing it for you anymore, I’m happy to share some starter with you.

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