Baking Our Daily Bread

by Barbara Pierce

As regular Kernel Book readers know Barbara Pierce is the wife of a college professor and has raised three children. She serves as editor of the Braille Monitor (the National Federation of the Blind's monthly magazine), works from a fully equipped home office--complete with computer, e-mail, and Internet access—a work arrangement which meshes perfectly with her love of homemaking. Here is what Barbara, who is totally blind, has to say about baking our daily bread:

One day my college roommate, whose usual cooking projects were limited to what she could achieve in our popcorn popper, returned from a trip to the supermarket with two loaves of frozen bread dough. She announced with glee that she was going to bake them and provide us with warm, homemade bread to go with the cheese spread, oranges, and brownies my mother had sent in her latest care package.

Having been party to dinner-roll making at home, I was skeptical about how well the loaves would rise in our frigid dorm room, but I went off to class hoping for the best. When I returned several hours later, I was gratified to find that the loaves had thawed but unsurprised to observe that they were still the same thin logs they had been when they arrived, even if they were now pliable.

Water left in a cup did not quite freeze in that dorm during the winter, but I had been glad to master the art of dressing while still wearing my flannel nightgown. I decided I would have to intervene if we were to have bread for supper.

By combining the available resources, I managed to construct a sort of incubator using my stool and desk lamp and my roommate's sheepskin throw. It worked beautifully, and gradually through the afternoon the bread began to rise. Those loaves were only the first hatched in our cobbled-together incubator that year and baked in the kitchen down the hall.

At home the following summer I began experimenting with making bread from scratch. My mother was trained as a home economist, and what she does not know about cooking is not worth learning. She taught me the rules for handling yeast correctly and for kneading dough effectively. In the end I learned not to be afraid of bread-making. It was a gift that has held me in good stead through the years.

The spring before I got married, the minister's wife at the church I attended while a student gave me a recipe for making four loaves of wonderful potato bread. I made the recipe several times before we had children, but I found it infinitely valuable once the children came along and began enjoying peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh bread and jam. But the best part of that potato bread was my accidental discovery that it lent itself beautifully to bread sculpture.

This is an art form ideally suited to blind bakers and small children, because as long as the sculptor's hands are clean, the dough can be handled and reshaped as often as necessary. (Mother can even surreptitiously reconstruct a masterpiece that has suffered from the competition of too many small hands.)

I eventually learned to divide the dough into three equal pieces and give each child a section of counter, a greased cookie sheet, and his or her part of the dough. This did not end the warfare exactly—bargaining sessions for a little dough from a neighbor's unused hoard had some tendency to turn into raids. But for a number of years in our family, Christmas preparations included making loaves of bread in the shapes of Santas, angels, Christmas trees, bells, and shepherds to give to neighbors and friends.

Octopi, Easter bunnies, Jack o'lanterns, and Valentines warm from the oven have also been eagerly consumed through the years with melting butter and raspberry jam in our kitchen.

When a cook is unafraid of yeast, the word spreads like magic. For years now I have made communion bread for our church. And hot cross buns, filled with currants and spices and decorated with crosses in lemon icing, are my contribution to the annual breakfast at church between the Easter services. I have even begun supplying the three-kings cake, which is really a sweet bread filled with candied cherries and raisins, for our Epiphany celebration.

People who don't bake are often surprised that I do so much of it. My husband is a college professor, so through the years I have turned out an endless array of cookies, bars, cakes, and quick breads for his classes. Doing that kind of baking is fun, and it's important to me to feed students who aren't getting homemade treats. But bread-baking satisfies something deep inside me. Kneading bread dough is a wonderful way to release frustration or anger and turn them into something nourishing and comforting. Even the fragrance of baking bread is a blessing to everyone who steps through the door.

Bread is a living presence in the kitchen. It is very forgiving of mistreatment or neglect. A loaf that has been left to rise for too long can be kneaded and reshaped for another try. If the room is too cold, moving the loaf to a warm place is enough to persuade it to begin rising. Even if the cook manages to kill the yeast, a little more can be dissolved and worked into the dough to rescue the project. It is easy to tell when bread is done even when one can't judge by looking at the color. A tap with fingertips on the crust readily tells the listener when the loaf is ready to be tipped out of the pan onto a cooling rack.

Several years ago I received a bread machine for my birthday. Since I had gone back to work and the children had left for college, I had fallen out of the habit of bread baking. The machine and the books of recipes for single loaves of mouth-watering breads I subsequently received inspired me to begin baking bread again.

But this time it was altogether different. The machine instructions said that I was to place the various ingredients in the bowl in a prescribed order, close the lid, press the correct button, and wait for the finished loaf to materialize. It seemed implausible, but it worked. The only problem was that the loaf was shaped like a flowerpot.

All went well, however, until the day I discovered that my bread machine had suicidal tendencies. During the kneading cycle, the machine sometimes began walking itself toward the edge of the counter. As long as I was in the room when this dangerous behavior began, I could keep pushing it back to safety. It was only a matter of time, however, until I was out of earshot and it actually leaped off the counter with a resounding crash and unfortunate consequences to the machine.

The first time this happened, the glass dome shattered. So much for baking oddly shaped loaves. I quickly discovered to my joy that I could remove the dough from the bowl at the end of the kneading process and shape the loaf myself, allow it to rise in the conventional way, and bake it in the oven.

My new arrangement worked well for quite a long time. Of course, the machine continued its self-destructive behavior, and every time it fell another dent appeared or something else rattled its way loose and eventually off. The cord was too short for me to place the bread machine on the floor while I was using it, and nothing that I could devise kept it from wandering.

My poor machine leaped from the counter for the last time months after I had made the transition to doing the baking myself. So I happily abandoned the machine that had taken up so much space on my counter and retained all the wonderful new recipes I had collected. My mixer has a bread hook, so I began tossing together the ingredients and beating them with the mixer to make loaves as easily and efficiently as the machine ever did the job.

It pleases me to bake, slice, and serve my own bread. But I couldn't bake all our bread the way I do if I did not work at home most of the time. In fact, I count providing all our bread as one of the many advantages of having a job that keeps me at home.

What does any of this have to do with blindness? Nothing and everything. Like thousands of other Americans I love to bake. My family regularly sits down to fresh Stollen on Christmas morning, homemade pizza with Italian bread crust, and crusty French bread loaves on picnics. The only difference is that my family laughs together to think how many of the people who know us only casually believe that my husband must necessarily prepare all the meals in our home, do the laundry, and keep the house clean. He grumbles that it is hard to wear the crown of sainthood undeservedly.

Gradually we in the National Federation of the Blind are teaching the public that blind people can and do carry out our responsibilities, living full and productive lives. Through the years I have taken much satisfaction from feeding my family and teaching my children, God's children, and the children of my friends to bake their daily bread.

Help Change What It Means To Be

Blind By Taking These Actions

* Take time to learn what blind people are really like. Get to know one of us on a personal basis.

* Promote Braille literacy. Insist that blind children be taught Braille in the public schools. Blind children who can't read can't compete.

* Tell an employer that blind people can be good employees. Blind people face a 70% unemployment rate. You can help.

* Seek out parents of blind children. Help form a support group in your community. Informed parents give children opportunities.

* Distribute Kernel Books (stories about the capabilities of blind persons) to local public libraries and schools.