It was almost the perfect seduction. Almost, but I didn’t give in.
I’m not sure when it all started. Sure, looks were probably a big part of it. Call me shallow, but looks count. And when the eyes fancy, the heart follows.
I fancy red. Big, shiny, industrial red. Kitchen Aid Empire Red. The best stand mixer of them all. Powerful, efficient, capable. A real workhorse. Just think of what I could do with a 325 watt all metal motor, 67 point planetary mixing action, and a stainless steel mixing bowl with a 5 quart capacity.
My kitchen is a fairly productive kitchen. There’s always something happening: bread rising, stock chilling in the fridge, a pot of soup on the stove. I love the connectedness of bringing food I create to the table. My thought and effort producing warm, nourishing, delicious meals for those I love. It’s not a bad way to spend your time. And I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. I love to snuggle into bed at the end of the day with a warm mug and a new cookbook. Or a dog-eared cookbook. Or several. It can be a little crowded.
But despite all new ideas, I wouldn’t say my kitchen is terrible well equipped. You see, when I married my patient bedfellow a few years back, we had no intention of settling down and building up a home. We were bound for adventures overseas, and the thought of lugging a houseful of stuff behind us was unthinkable. So we didn’t register for gifts. No paper towel holder, no canister set, no matching spoon rest. And no gorgeous red Kitchen Aid stand mixer.
I really didn’t think I needed one. I mixed my biscotti dough with a stout wooden spoon. I kneaded my bread with my own two hands. I never attempted meringue.
But I had grown up in the kitchen with a stand mixer, and maybe that’s where the trouble started. I remember, like every other kid with an idealized childhood, coming home from school and finding my mum standing at the counter, plastic spatula in hand as she supervised her Mixmaster cream and churn vast quantities of the most marvelous cookie dough. She even let me lick the beaters.
Recently, these memories have been rising to the surface of my brain. I find myself thinking about perfect pancakes, the batter blended by a shining red stand mixer. I dream of that childhood cookie dough, and of birthday cakes with butter-cream icing, and of the fluffiest whipped potatoes with unctuous garlic butter and cream, and the next thing I know, I’m at the computer, wasting time online comparing and contrasting makes and models and motor speeds. I’ve long since decided against a Mixmaster. The Kitchen Aid is just too appealing. All metal, heavy duty. It comes with a flat beat, a whisk and a super strong “C”dough hook, perfect for kneading up to four loaves of bread at once. And there are so many other tempting attachments that I could buy! Just think, I could make pasta. I could make ice cream. I could make sausages. My family would be fed and happy and loved.
And it comes in shiny red.
So then, the other morning, I was making bread. Just my usual recipe, nothing overly experimental going on. It’s a wet dough that needs at least eight hours to rise, so I made it up the evening before and let it sit over night. Early in the morning, before anyone else was awake, I was standing at the table, kneading the soft, slightly sticky dough, enjoying its elasticity, and leaning into my work. The bread smelled wonderful. Like flour, yes, but also sweet and yeasty like good beer. I’d added some flax and sunflower seeds, and the slightly nubbly and flecked texture was pleasing under my palms. It felt compliant in my hands, forgiving, and encouraging.
As I formed the loaves, giving them nice smooth tops and tucking them neatly into their pans, I thought about the act of baking. It’s an act of transformation at its most basic. You take flour and yeast, water and salt and something sweet to help it along, and they look ragged and a bit chaotic. But you work them together with your hands and wait and work them again until they turn into food. Marvelous. Verging on miraculous. And my hands were part of that transformation.
Participating in transformative acts like baking bread is participating in hope. It’s a way of reminding ourselves that good still grows among us. It’s affirming that, in the face of all that falls apart and falls away in our world, there are still good possibilities. Hope, this active leaning into transformation, changes how we look at today, encouraging us to see potential in God’s good world rather than just chaos and limitations. Hope pulls us into tomorrow as we dare to live in expectation.
Food, and bread especially, is an obvious symbol for this kind of hope, and, as I stood there at my table, kneading the dough and getting the loaves ready for the oven, I felt that whatever other work I managed to get done that day, I had already pressed my palms into the very stuff of hope and transformation.
So I’ve decided against the Kitchen Aid mixer. I want to keep that power of transformation in my own hands. Yes, the mixer would be beautiful, glorious and efficient on my counter, and it would make my bread-making more convenient. But we give away so much these days in the name of convenience. I like being connected to my food. I’ve decided I don’t mind waking up a bit early in order to roll up my sleeves and lean into hope.
And, I tell you, the resulting bread tastes great with homemade marmalade.
This recipe is my version of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Robin’s Bread, as found in their book Homebaking. I’ve tinkered with it a bit because, really, isn’t that what we all do with recipes? Recently, I’ve been using multigrain flour – a blend of flours, cracked wheat, cracked rye and whole flax – instead of the whole wheat flour, and it produces a lovely, speckled look. Feels much more nourishing, but that’s probably just the visual component kicking in again.
It makes 3 large loaves.
6 cups luke-warm water
2/3 cup powdered milk
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
4 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup flax meal
2 tablespoons malt syrup (or other sweet like honey, sugar, etc.)
8 -10 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
Two big handfuls of sunflower seeds, hulled and unsalted
Combine milk powder, water and yeast in a large mixing bowl. Add whole wheat flower and stir until more or less blended in. Don’t fuss too much about small lumps. Stir in the malt syrup, then add three cups of the all-purpose flour. It sounds like magic, but be sure from this stage on always to stir in the same direction. It helps the gluten develop. Stir in salt, oil, flax meal, and sunflower seeds. Add 4-5 more cups of all-purpose flour, one cup at a time.
Flour a work surface generously and turn the dough out. Knead for at least 10 minutes, incorporating more flour as you go. I find a dough scraper useful for this part because the dough is very wet and sticky. The finished dough will still be sticky, but manageable.
Divide the dough in two and place each half in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise at least 8 hours. If more than 8, I like to put it in the fridge to slow the rise. The risen dough will fill the bowl and be very wet and spongy.
Flour a work surface generously. Also gently flour the top of the risen dough and push it down, pulling it away from the edges of the bowl as you do. Turn out the dough and lightly knead with a sprinkling more flour. Then divide dough into three, even lumps.
Butter three loaf pans. Shape your loaves by kneading gently and forming each into an oval shape and tuck the sides under. You will feel surface tension developing, and the dough will look stretched across the top. Tuck the loaves into their pans. I like to slash the top of the loaves with a very sharp knife to add visual interest. Set aside to rise again for 30-40 minutes.
Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 400◦F. Place risen loaves in the oven. After 10 minutes, turn down the temperature to 375◦F. Bake for another 20 minutes. Then turn the pans around and bake for 25 minutes.
To check if the loaves are down, turn one of them out of its pan. It should sound hollow when knocked on the bottom and its corners should feel firm.
Let cool on a rack before slicing.