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.

16 Replies to “Proof”

  1. I enjoyed your descriptions of a wonderful act. “The brain of yeast” is cool. “Proofing” is also a printmaking term for the early test printing and image developing … another form of growth or development!

  2. What a lovely description. For what it’s worth, I routinely make bread without much sweetener at all — a squeeze of honey into the warm water, along with the yeast and a cup of flour, for the poolish / sponge — and find that as long as I allow sufficient time for a slower rise, the bread doesn’t seem to miss it.

    I have a bread bowl that Ethan gave me years ago — a slightly misshapen big blue-agate bowl from Bennington Potters. It’s a factory second, and I love it wildly. One of my most treasured possessions.

  3. Thanks, marja-leena. The word is used in a similar sense in numismatics, too. What’s interesting is that all of these usages retain the original sense of “evidence to establish the fact (of something” from ca. 1225, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

    Rachel – I’d be interested to know how long you let it rise? I could easily adjust my rising times, but am simply wary of altering a technique that took me years to perfect. Making bread isn’t some occasional artisinal thing; I make all the yeast bread that I and my parents consume. Thus my orientation is toward predictability rather than experimentation, I’m afraid.

    I broke my Mom’s largest ceramic bread bowl (also inherited from her Nanna) years ago. Fortunately, we quickly found a replacement at a locally owned department store that specializes in stuff the big boxes don’t bother with. It’s a bland factory make, though; it sounds like your bowl has much more charm.

  4. I love this yeast-rising bread talk. I’ve been baking our bread for a couple of years now. It’s surprising how the bowls are almost as important as the ingredients. I set the things out in the order I will need them. It’s like a meditation and a yoga all at once. Today I began our rye bread using a starter I made two weeks ago. Rye bread takes two days. The rising is slow, but I have the time.

  5. I would like to learn your rye bread technique. I make a pretty good multigrain whole wheat, but my five-hour regimen doesn’t always make perfect rye loaves – and in any case I really dig that sourdough taste with rye.

  6. As much as I cook, breadbaking — and more specifically yeast handling – is still a mysterious sacramental rite to me. Those who do it are, in my mind, high priests and priestesses, holders of secrets and more subtle than I.

    Poor Scarbutt. But lucky, too.

  7. Zhoen – Funny you should mention oatmeal. I tossed a couple cups of rolled oats into Monday’s batch of bread on an impulse. Give it a little extra oomph, I thought, but actually I can hardly tell the difference (which probably tells you something about my bread).

    Beth – Ha! You are a way more serious chef than I am, to judge from your periodic (and usually mouth-watering) food posts. I am the not-so-high priest of casseroles, quiches and “comfort food.” Far from subtle, in other words.

  8. This, and the fact that I’m in Vermont now, make me want to get my hands on some dough – I haven’t baked any bread for months. I liked what you wrote about the proofing and photography, and have somehow resisted the new yeasts that don’t require this step – and Id never consider using self-rising flour! Our big heavy ceramic bread bowl is older than our marriage; beige with two stripes around the rim. It’s actually one of the uglier objects in our kitchen but I don’t think we’d be able to part with it.

  9. I miss baking bread, I haven’t had room for it since I moved down to NYC.

    There were a few years when I was a kid, that my Mom wouldn’t let me get a real pet, so I’d keep dishes of “pet yeasts”….

  10. beth – I’m glad you liked the post. What about Vermont reminds you of bread – just that that’s where you’re used to making it? I’ve noticed that in your Montreal posts you’re always going out to buy bread. Would it make it feel more like your permanent home if you began baking there?

    In reference to your last comment, I’m very interested in the sort of attachments that we form with homely objects, places and people. We can’t call them unattractive, clearly, because there is something about them, some charisma, that we do find attractive. (Someone once wrote about George Eliot that she was attractive in that way: when he first met her, he thought she was the ugliest woman he ever saw, but after ten minutes of conversation, he thought she was one of the most attractive.)

  11. David – Pet yeasts, eh? Did you ever name them, either collectively or (not sure how) individually? I guess that would’ve predated Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I can see having a pet yeast colony called The Borg.

  12. No, no names for the yeast. I wasn’t quite that desperate. ;-)

    Regarding attractive vs. non-attractive people, I’ve said for a while that some of the ugliest people I’ve known have been among the most beautiful, and vice versa.

    Regarding objects, are you familiar with Japanese tea-ceremony traditions? Way back in college one of my courses included some history of the business. Apparently, one of the mainstays of their “high tradition” was the collection and use of certain clay vessels for handling the tea, ranging from antique to ancient. In conventional terms, these are quite ugly — but the practitioners found their appearance worthy of meditation and poetry.

    But there was one rather odd account, where a certain fellow single-handly introduced a new tradition, that of making new, temporary implements out of bamboo on the spot. The readings did not give full details, but between the lines I sensed something to the effect of: this guy was too poor to afford the traditional vessels, but he’d managed to charm his way into “the crowd” — well enough that the nobles, monks, etc were willing to let him make a new path to the tea ceremony.

  13. David – I did read The Book of Tea and some other stuff back in the day, but my memory’s dim. But I think you’re right, the wabi-sabi aesthetic that grew up with the tea ceremony in the Japanese middle ages gives homely objects center stage.

    I did attend a tea ceremony once at the biggest Zen temple in Kyoto. Along with my American girlfriend, I was the guest of a quite exclusive club of wealthy housewives (almost all the traditional arts of Japan survive through the patronage of wealthy housewives). They were sitting in a large circle on the tatami mats, waiting for the ceremony to begin, when in we walked, the only two Westerners. They were trying to be polite and not stare when my forehead connected loudly with a low-hanging beam. I wouldn’t describe it as a clunk; it was much more resonant than that, I’m sure. We’re talking an 800-year-old temple here. It really broke the ice though – maybe a little too much. An unfortunate undercurrent of mirth remained throughout the ceremony.

  14. I love the discussion here of not just the bread and the yeast, but the bowls in which such alchemy occurs. There’s something about a bowl, or a cup, that makes it easy to develop attachment to them; I have favorite bowls and cups in a way that doesn’t seem to extend to things like plates. I have two beloved baking bowls, one out of frosted glass, orange on the outside and white on the inside, that is in shape like an inverted, truncated cone. The other is a simple large curved bowl that I painted with twining vines in one of those decorate-it-yourself pottery stores on one of my first dates with my partner D. Aside from that aspect of it, it’s perfect for holding rising bread, and is just the right size for a single pot’s worth of popcorn.

  15. Hi Rana – Thanks for stopping by. I think you’re right: something about the shape of bowls (and cups or mugs) makes them uniquely attachment-worthy. They are almost maternal presences.

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