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Bread bins

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on April 14, 2017

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“There’s a problem with this bread you make,” says Bins. “What is it?” I ask. “There’s never enough,” he says. I make it every three days or so. It’s really easy. The recipe I use, created by Jim Lahey and popularised by Mark Bittman of The New York Times, doesn’t require any kneading. Instead, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours. That extreme length of time substitutes for the kneading.

But “there’s too much suspense,” says Bins, “between the eating of one loaf and the baking of the next.” So he wants to try his hand at making the bread himself, by doubling the recipe and making two loaves instead of one. “Go right ahead,” I say, “keeping in mind that I have only one baking container.” The recipe demands a lidded pot which can be placed inside the oven and withstand the 450ºF (232ºC) heat. I use a heavy cast-iron vessel that does the job perfectly.

“So what?” says Bins, as he begins weighing out the flour, salt, yeast and water. “You worry too much. I am a Frenchman, remember? Making bread is in my blood.” He has watched me making the bread often enough over the past couple of years so he knows what to do. He mixes the ingredients to create a large, gluey mass that’s neither too wet nor too dry. The recipe describes it as “hairy” and that’s exactly what it looks like. Next the mixing bowl has to be stored in a warm, dry place. I use the oven itself, switched off but with its interior light turned on. “Pooh!” says Bins. “That will not be warm enough for MY dough.” So instead he creates a contraption using a table lamp clamped to the underside of a chair with a thin, wickerwork seat.

For the next 18 hours, he checks on his dough like a broody hen. He adjusts the heat of the lamp, turning it on and off, fretting about the draughts in the room and holding his ear to the side of the container so that he can hear the faint eerie bubbling of the living yeast at work. The next morning, it’s time to take the dough out for its first airing. “Wah!” says Bins, as he tips the giant amoeba of pale ivory dough onto the tiny countertop in my miniature kitchen. “It’s ... it’s really HUGE, huh?” About the size of a flattened cat. He struggles to keep it from crawling off the counter. It remains out for 15 minutes then has to be wrestled back into a bowl, wrapped inside a cloth napkin to be “proved” for a second rise.

Two hours later it’s time to separate the giant seething blob into two. The cast-iron pot has meanwhile been heated in the oven, so it’s screaming hot. “Aha! It does not WANT to be separated!” cries Bins, as he saws away at the unruly glob. It sticks to everything — his hands, the countertop, the knife, his hair. Eventually he succeeds and 45 minutes later, ta-daaaa! The miracle of baked bread. “Isn’t she BEAUTIFUL?” trills Bins, as he tips the loaf out and pours the remaining dough into the hissing black pot. A short while later: two beautiful loaves. “Well done,” I say. “Oh it was nothing,” says Bins, blushing happily.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on April 14, 2017
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