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​Give us our daily bread and family bonding

Published on: 15-Nov-2020

Working from home has been a fertile breeding ground for the baking craze to bloom all over the world. Flour and baking supply shortages were reported from Surrey to Sengkang, and Boston to Bishan.

Understandably, the craze stemmed from people kneading to reduce stress. The sheer act of shaping and forming dough has helped many to overcome the ennui of lockdowns.

Our family's bread-making journey started during the circuit breaker in Singapore from April to June. For my wife F, chief baking instigator and dough whisperer, bread-making was the outlet that made the multi-month, work-from-home sentence somewhat bearable.

A freshly baked crusty loaf is the perfect remedy for the absence of social interaction. Each loaf's promise of family and human connection is delivered in full, when it is broken and shared.

"Bread gives us a sense of place," says Tara Jensen (Instagram handle @BakerHands) a star artisanal baker based in the United States. "It's an anchor, not just for one person but for the whole community. It gives you a sense of where you are when you eat it."

As each loaf is baked and consumed by our family, or delivered to friends and neighbours, Jensen's words become a reality: "I love the practice of baking… what my work consists of, is other people and relationships we have with each other. Bread is the vehicle through which these connections are forged and upheld."

The power of fresh bread goes beyond community and human relationships. Researchers from the University of Southern Brittany in France found in 2012 that pleasant aromas from bread baking actually led people to be kinder and more considerate to strangers, as compared with when the smell of baking was absent.

The paper published in the Journal of Social Psychology with the title "The Sweet Smell of Implicit Helping" uncovered the link between the smell of baking bread and helpful, considerate behaviour.

More than 20 years ago, as newlyweds on a three-year work assignment in Frankfurt, Germany, my wife and I lived on the second floor in an apartment directly above a traditional German bakery.

The smell of freshly baked bread woke us up every morning and intermingled with our dreams in the wee hours of the morning during our time of deepest sleep.

In the light of the French study, the good smells could have helped encourage more considerate behaviour in how we interacted as a young couple. Small gestures, such as getting a beverage for your spouse while you are getting one for yourself, kept disagreements between us then to a minimum. Many of the nascent habits that began during our time living above the bakery have endured over our more than two decades of marriage.

Bread-baking has taught our family three precious lessons over the past few months.

The first lesson is improvisation. Eschewing the specialised gear in semi-professional home baking stores, my wife's Dutch oven is made up of two old cake tins joined by two metal clips. She has since co-opted an old clay pot to serve as the same.

Her baguette flipping board is a piece of used cardboard covered in aluminium foil, while her baker's couche - a cloth used to help the dough keep its shape while it is proving - is an old pillow case.

The improvised tools do not affect the taste or quality of the baked bread, not to mention saving us hundreds of dollars on gear, which would add to our already cluttered kitchen.

The second lesson is about dealing with failure. At the heart of the matter, baking bread is about managing a living thing, a bread starter or yeast that causes the bread to rise.

My wife's home sour dough starter is now four months old. Her first starter died in early June, when she unknowingly added chlorinated water into the starter mix, killing the active microbes in it. That was a dark day for our family of four.

Several days of "mourning" were declared, and the ovens in our home went cold, as we sought to recover and make sense of our loss. Fortunately, after a week, my wife was able to take the tentative steps to starting up a new sour dough starter from scratch, and returned to bread-baking again.

The final lesson is about how bread-making is about baking a family loaf. Between feeding and maintaining the starter with flour and water, cleaning up after a baking session, and sitting down to the successes and failures that emerge from the oven, bread-making has become a family affair, with each member ready to lend a hand if something needs to be done.

Our family's mealtime conversations have been peppered with discussions on the chemistry of the bread, how the starter is doing, and the kind of bread to bake next. It has been eight months since we last bought bread from the store, thanks to our once-a-week bakes that provide us our daily fix.

When a loaf comes out of the oven, I often think of the familiar lines of the opening credits of the classic TV show ABC's Wide World Of Sports: "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition." In this case, the competition is about how well the bread has turned out and who will get the last slice of bread.

Under these stressful times of the pandemic, such friendly competition, even if it is just about relishing our freshly home-baked creations, helps us bond as a family as we share a meal and break bread together.

Source: The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2020

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