I scatter a level tablespoon of dry yeast on the surface of the warm water — three-fourths of a cup, blood temperature — in the yellow mixing bowl that belonged to my mother’s father’s mother. Hard to call it an antique, since we use it almost every day. In fact, I just took it off the dish drainer: my mother used it to mix a dessert custard an hour ago. The paint is a little chipped around the rim, but otherwise it’s in fine shape. It’s a two-quart bowl, ceramic, and with a steep-sided shape that’s hard to find these days, so for reasons more practical than sentimental my mother lives in dread of someone dropping and breaking it someday.
This is called proofing the yeast: waiting for it to show signs of life. Not so different from proofreading a text, really. While I wait, I grind rosemary, measure out a quarter cup of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt, and get the flour out of the cupboard. I’ll start with a half-scoop of white flour, then make up the rest — two to three cups, I guess — with medium-ground whole wheat. I tried adding some durum wheat flour for a while, but I couldn’t tell the difference. For whole wheat pizza, I’ve found that using a heated stone and adding the sauce right away are the most important things. Otherwise you end up with something you need to cut with a steak knife.
But that’s a couple hours away yet. Right now, I’m still waiting for the yeast. I stand looking out at the back porch, where my mother hangs the birdfeeders. The black barn cat crouches over a vole burrow below the steps. A little farther downslope, a brown leaf rises on a sudden gust of wind and reattaches itself to a low-hanging branch. I stare in disbelief. It’s too cold out for butterflies. There aren’t any birds that look like that. I walk into the next room to look through another window, but now I can’t find the leaf. I go back into the kitchen and look through the back door again: the leaf, or whatever it was, is indeed gone. So is the cat.
Yesterday around noon, as I was waiting for a batch of bread to finish, I stood here and watched a small woodchuck eating the young leaves off the black raspberry canes. The woodchuck stood on its hind legs to reach the canes, which it held between its teeth like corn on the cob, delicately nibbling the inch-long leaves. They had burst from their buds two weeks ago, just before the cold returned, and have hardly grown since. This wasn’t the fat and handsome fellow I watched through my own kitchen window two weeks ago; in fact, it looked as if it might have gotten a bit too close to that other chuck. There was a long gash in the fur of its lower back, and its tail was missing. “Scarbutt,” I said to myself, thinking of Al Pacino.
With the cat gone, the birds filter back. All the sparrows are still around, including the swamp sparrow, who is proving something of a bully. He scratches like a chicken in the thick layer of sunflower seeds on the ground below the feeders, and chases anything that comes within a one-foot radius.
There’s a flash of gold at the left-hand feeder. Two of the goldfinches have nearly completed the changeover from drab olive green to their namesake summer plumage, but the mountain doesn’t seem quite ready for them yet. Over half of our daffodils and forsythia have yet to bloom, to say nothing of tulip poplars, sugar maples, oaks, and other green and gold things. I suppose the molt is triggered by length of daylight, and if turning early makes goldfinches more visible and vulnerable in a world of later springs, then perhaps selective pressures will favor late-bloomers — so to speak.
After five or six minutes, the yeast still on the surface has organized itself into ridges in a two-sided, symmetrical pattern strongly reminiscent of a brain viewed from above. Unfortunately, I don’t have my camera handy, and there’s no way I can get it from the other house before the yeast expands further and erases the pattern, so I won’t have any photographic evidence. I almost said “proof,” but that’s a term that seems distinctly out-of-place in the digital age, when proofsheets have disappeared along with the public’s confidence in photos as true depictions of reality. It’s a striking apparition, though, this brain of yeast. It’s still in my mind ten minutes later as I knead the dough — such a joy without the stickiness of the sugar (honey, molasses) required for bread! — and feel the bubbles begin to pop against my palms.