As-a-matter-of-factly she said leaving the kitchen after the night of cooking for over 30 guests, “After the guests leave put the bread dough to rise overnight. In the morning we might be short on bread and the road may be closed because of snow”. I was humbled by the responsibility my mother-in-law has passed on me and mildly outraged by the scope – there was some 5-6 kg of dough to handle.
On the day I started my consulting job a senior partner asked me to put together a note on the Russian educational system as we were kicking off a project with a major federal university. I took almost a week to produce the memo: the topic was so broad that it was hard to decide what to include in a short read. 10 pages seemed such a tiny space to tell the whole story. In time I’ve learned to prepare 2 page memo within a day which would shed a light on a matter of any complexity and inform an opinion or choice.
That night at the kitchen I felt the same. The task was ambiguous. My mother-in-law wanted the bread in a very specific way. But how precise can you be with explaining how to make bread? 2 packs fresh yeast and 4 measures…let’s say those yellow bowls.. of flour – 1 bran flour and 3 all-purpose flour. And make one batch with just all-purpose flour. Sugar, salt? Yes, a bit, don’t put too much salt. And a bit of oil, vegetable oil, this much – here she takes a tea glass to show about 2/3.
As the weekend kitchen helper comes around anne says, “I told Olga and now telling you: you two, please, make that dough. 4 measures..”. “Oh, I will forget”, – the weekend helper is quick to hold back. “Olga will not,” said my mother-in-law and left.
She is like that: she calls most of the things in the way that you must know things to understand: “that thing” means a little bowl to put tartar sauce in when served on the plate or the newly bought knife, “over there” means downstairs storage or dairy products fridge. She explains ones and you better catch the explanation. As a top-tier performer and a former national athlete she expect others to “just get it”.
At midnight we went down to the kitchen to accomplish the dough-making mission. A few other people immediately materialize around. Besides the weekend assistant there came anne’s regular assistant (A), our dishwater and a young daughter of your gardener helping and learning the kitchen matters on weekends. All the grown-ups had something to say on how to make bread. Everyone has been making bread at home for years. No one used vegetable oil so no one had a good idea on when exactly to put it – mix it with the starter or knead it in once the dough is done.
Our weekend assistant said, “I am not interfering”. A showed the photos of the bread he made last time on his phone to demonstrate the expertise. Our dishwasher said, “A, you make good one, why would not you make it?”. They all spoke at the same time casting their knowledge and offering some sort of advice on how to make bread. But everyone knew that the olive oil has to be there and it was me on the duty today.
I was a bit lost with the size of the dough: there is a mystery in scaling up ingredients. What looks totally manageable when prepared for 4 people looks way to ominous when cooked for 20. I was also not sure about the brief any more. When anne said she wanted one batch with all-purpose only – did she mean 4 measures or just 1? And when to put the olive oil indeed?
But then I just started making the dough following my experience and logic. Because just like you don’t need to spend week to put together a short note helping someone make an informed decision you don’t need to waste time discussing how to make bread. It takes half an hour to put together and a few hours to see if you have succeeded or not.
Luke-warm water, fresh yeast, whisk, salt, sugar, whisk to froth, olive oil, whisk. Large plastic basin, sieved flour, making a well, folding the yeast mix in, start kneading in a circular fashion putting more luck-warm water as needed. I saw my grandma doing this hundreds of times.
The large bulk of dough took at least good 20 minutes to knead. I gave all the attention and strength to that I could. Eventually I greased the sides of the both plastic basins and and covered with the stretch film.
By the morning both had risen fantastically. “Why the all-purpose batch is so small?”- asked anne when she came down to the kitchen and examined the dough. So there had to be 4 measures in each batch meaning there was now too much yeast. And even though technically, 2 х 42g packages of yeast called for exactly 4 kilos of flour that I used it could have been ok to use less yeast since the dough had so much time to rest.
The dough tasted beer. I was disappointed with myself but my mother-in-law kept cool, “The dough lacks some salt but that’s it”. She rolled 8 loaves, arranged them on the trays sprinkled with flour, brushed with egg wash and seasoned poppy seeds and sesame seeds. 1.5 hours later we had the freshly backed bread – lacking in salt but still very beautiful.
“There are so many ways to make bread and so many ingredients to throw in – wild herbs, olives, garlic, onion, nuts, dry fruits and vegetables and what not. But I first wanted you to learn how to make bread in this simple way”. “I was so worried if it would turn well or not” – I said with a relief. “Why?” – she raised her eye-brows – “It turned well. And if it did not – you would make another try and then it eventually will”. Just like with writing memos – you start with 10-pager and then invariably get down to the practical 2.