Sunday, February 14, 2010

Handed to me from the past

Today was a bread-baking day: I fed my sourdough starter last night, measured out the flours, salt, and water (oh, and a pinch of yeast...in the winter, the starter tends to lag; we keep our thermostat in the high 50's overnight), set the mixer on the counter.

Feeding the starter, kneading the dough, shaping the loaves: the process brings my family history to life. I think about my grandmother, for whom I was named. She taught me the craft of baking: "Add enough water to make the dough; you'll know how much because it will feel 'right'"; "stretch the strudel dough with the back of your hands; that way your fingers won't poke a hole in the dough." I can sense her spirit looking over my shoulder as I work in my kitchen, blessing my work. It's comforting; with her there with me, I DO know when the dough feels right.

As my hands work the bread dough, I also think of my great-grandfather. He is a figure I only know from pictures: a slender man of slight build, with a VanDyke moustache, his eyes serious yet kind. Franz's roots were in eastern Austria, in the province of Burgenland. After marrying Louisa, he brought his young family to the New World, to Pittsburgh. I am not sure if that is where he learned the baking trade, but after a few years he returned to Europe, crossing what must have been only a theoretical national border--the lands were likely the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time--to settle in a small village in Hungary. And there he opened his bakery.

I imagine what daily life must have been like for Franz, a white apron wound around his middle, his soft, floured hands mixing multi-loaf batches of dough. Shaping ovals of rye bread, to be slashed and glazed with egg before baking. Rounds and rounds of rolls--semmeln--the tops creased into five parts like a crown, in honor of the Emperor Franz Josef. (Yes, that's where Kaiser rolls got their name.) They would be of white flour, precious and delicate, the crusts light brown and crisp. Best eaten fresh, lovely at breakfast, which would mean that Franz had likely set the sponge the night before, only to rise at 3 AM, perhaps earlier, to make the final dough, proof and shape and rise and bake by the time the housewives appeared at 6 AM for the morning meal. The oven would be wood-fired, and thus never permitted to go out completely; the bricks would glow with heat, probably close to 600 degrees. Sweltering in the summer, welcome in the winter. I wonder who built the oven for Franz and where it was...and if it might still be there, buried under the rubble of a Communist takeover.

I wield my peel to shunt the loaves into the oven and picture Franz deftly handling his peel, sliding bread onto the hot bricks,the bottoms crusting instantly; and in his skill, being able to reverse the process, scooping out the browned, crackling loaves to cool on a rack on the table.

I read baking books which talk about precise measurements of ingredients, water at exactly 76 degrees, cold proofing for flavor (the retard, it's called) at 54 or 45 degrees, depending on scheduling. The baking instructions that recommend a 40 minute bake at 460F with two minutes of steam at the start and two more bursts of steam over the next ten minutes. Bake until an internal temperature of 205F is achieved.

I think of Franz. He must have developed calibrated hands--able to form his palm into a cup which would hold a portion of yeast or firm starter. Knowing by feel that the water was warm enough to enliven the starter. Able to judge the temperature of the oven by inserting his hand into its mouth and counting the seconds he could tolerate the heat. To be capable of flicking or knocking on the bottom crust of a loaf and know it was done.

I'm not that adept yet. I think I have many, many more loaves to bake until I am. However, I'm glad that Franz's spirit is looking over my shoulder too.

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