Bread and Religion

Recipes #12,13 and 14, pizza dough, pizza with tomato and mozzarella and white and whole wheat bread.

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Pizza dough made by Luca

Last Sunday I had a little bread baking party with a couple of moms and their two boys who are good friends of Luca’s from school. The last time I tried baking bread was in college when I was preparing to play Saint Joan and was giving The Method a shot by baking bread and washing my sheets by hand. Washing the sheets almost broke my back and it must be that I forever associated the bread baking with it because I have always thought of it as exceedingly difficult and not really worth the trouble. I learned on Sunday how wrong I have been all these years. All you need to bake bread besides time is some good company.

Of course it helped to have an experienced baker in the kitchen. I have never actually eaten a full meal at Amy’s house, but it’s impossible to go to her house, even for five minutes, without her offering you a million different things that she just happens to have in the fridge and that she whipped up the day before. Some of these offerings (she calls them “snacks”) have included homemade blintzes; various soups such as bean, cabbage, vegetable and chicken soup with homemade matzoh balls; strudel; lasagne; and challah bread. A snack in my house is a banana or some chips out of a bag. I have seen people leave Amy’s house laden with Tupperware containers full of roasted meats, coffee cake and cabbage rolls.

I was looking forward to the old-fashioned-quilting-bee aspect of our afternoon, three women communing over a shared activity that would result in some homemade deliciousness. Bread is the simplest of foods and is symbolic of many things from friendship to God. But for me, the Italians sum it up best: “Bread is all food, the rest is accompaniment.”

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Since there would be three or four different breads rising at various different times that afternoon, I suggested to Luca that, before our friends arrived, he tackle the pizza dough recipe from Fanny at Chez Panisse. That way we would have a nice pizza to bake for everybody later. It took a little coaxing because Luca could think of nothing else but playing with two of his best friends. Amy’s son Micah is a great pal of Luca’s. The first time Micah came to our house we were living in an old beach shack in Venice Beach. As he climbed the rickety steps to the house, Micah said: “It must be a drag to live here.” I adore this kid.

That same day in Venice, Luca and Micah had a conversation about God. They were both six years old and were figuring out their differences while I typed madly on my laptop trying to transcribe it all. Micah’s grandparents, Amy’s parents, are Holocaust survivors who were interned at Auschwitz. Amy is a Reform Jew and says that she “learned at an early age that I had to repopulate the world with Jews.” (She’s not doing badly on that score; she has three sons)

Here is Luca and Micah’s conversation about God:

Luca: Jewish people believe in things that are not true.

Micah: Christian people believe in things that are not true, too.

Luca: I don’t believe in things that are not true.

Micah: What is true?

Luca: The queen is true. She lives in England. God doesn’t exist.

Micah: Yes, he does.

Luca: That’s magic stuff.

Micah: No it’s not. Do you believe in Christ?

Luca: No.

Micah: You are a Christian.

Luca: No I’m not. I’m an American.

Micah: But you’re a Christian. Americans can be Christians and Jewish.

Luca: Let’s play another game.

Micah: God does exist – there has to be a god, the thing that made us. There has to be something that made us.

Luca: No, our dad did. He made the seed.

Micah: He made the seed?

Luca: Yeah. He made the seed. And it went in the egg, and you grew in your mom’s tummy and then you came out. Our dad actually made the seeds.

Micah: How?

Luca: I don’t know but he made the seeds.

Micah: Luca, you don’t get it. You said it was unfair that gods have the power of invisibility. But if god has the power of invisibility, then you just leave him alone.

Luca: OK, then don’t pray to him. If you leave him alone then don’t pray to him.

Micah: Well, if you leave him alone and not pray to him then he’ll get mad at you.

Luca: Jewish have to do that but not Christians.

Micah: Yes they do.

Luca: I don’t.

Micah: You don’t pray?

Luca: No. I don’t go to church. I only go to school and classes.

Micah: You don’t go to church?

Luca: No. I just do whatever I want. I play around. I only go to school and classes and that’s it. I don’t go anywhere.

Micah: You only go to school and that’s it?

Luca: I don’t go to church. I only go to the cemetery.

Micah: I went to a cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Luca:  Me too!

Micah: But there is a cemetery in California.

Luca: But that’s not the one I went to. I went to the one where my uncle is buried. So when I go to visit him when he’s dead, I have to go there.

Micah: You go to visit him when he’s dead?

Luca: Yeah.

Micah: You can’t visit him when he’s dead.

Luca: Yes you can. That’s how all the flowers get there. By people visiting.

Micah: No. People plant seeds.

This discussion held several surprises for me; that the Queen of England is truer than God, for one. But the main surprise was that Luca was such a fierce agnostic. He had been to church once with his cousins and pronounced it “boring,” and “a lot of magic stuff.” But since we had not discussed the subject much I hadn’t realized how strongly he felt. (It was also interesting to learn that the dad makes the babies because he makes the seed, never mind what I remember about months of backache, nausea and exhaustion.)

Luca dissolved the yeast in warm water and a little milk, and right away the whole room smelled like bread. “What is yeast?” Luca asked. I had no good answer except to say that it was what made the bread rise and that it was alive. This must be why I don’t know what yeast is, because any time I have asked the same question, I get a similarly lame answer. (Anyone who actually knows what yeast is, please post a comment.)

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Great illustration by Ann Arnold

He added the flour, salt and olive oil and mixed it around until it was too thick to stir. Then he sprinkled some flour on the counter and started kneading. I love watching Luca knead dough. He goes at it with intensity and passion. Plus he’s good at it.

When he was done, we rubbed olive oil all over the cleaned bowl and Luca placed the dough inside. The smell was divine, just like a New York pizzeria. Luca must have been reading my mind because just then asked me if he could spin it around in the air when it was time to make the pizza pie. I said he could try it if he wanted, but by that time, he was too involved in playing with his friends.

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Luca kneading

Then we covered it with a towel and put it in the oven to rise (the oven was off). I made tomato sauce, grated mozzarella and chopped some fresh basil for the pizza. When it was time, Luca punched down the pizza dough (he loved this). Then he kneaded the dough again, got a little silly with it until I told him to cut it out, and put it back in the bowl for another rise.

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punching the dough

Later, after the three boys had had their first fight and then got settled into some friendly Star Wars battles, the three women made bread. Amy made a dill and cottage cheese bread and Marie a gluten-free loaf. I made the White and Whole Wheat Bread from the Alice Waters cookbook figuring that if it was a recipe meant for kids it couldn’t be as hard as washing sheets by hand.

Baking bread is a great excuse to hang out because there is so much waiting around time. Marie brought her mother, so there were three generations of us in the house all engaged in our various activities including kneading, killing off the Death Star, reading, drinking raspberry-infused vodka gimlets, brokering peace among the boys, making soup, taking photos, and of course baking bread in two ovens and trying to keep track of the baking and rising times for each (made harder by the drinking of the vodka gimlets).

I used more whole wheat and less white flour than Alice Waters’ recipe called for. This is what mine looked like before it went into the oven.

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This was Amy’s bread right out of the oven.

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At the end of the day we sat down to three kinds of bread with a few other things as accompaniment. Marie made a nice barley soup, I baked the pizza and we had some wine. All the breads were delicious. Warmth all around.

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5 Comments

  1. The things you learn about your family in the most unlikely places. Thank you Laurie for this beautiful post.

  2. Yeast is a form of fungus that reproduces mainly through budding but on rare occasions through binary fission. Most species of yeast are uncicellular but some become multicellular by forming chains of yeast from budding. It feeds off of the starches in the dough and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as waste products. The carbon dioxide creates bubble in the bread causing it to rise. The alcohol is burned off in the oven and there is not much produced anyway in just a few hours.

    • Thanks, Asher, for this definition. This is very helpful (although I will have to look up binary fission) and fascinating.

  3. An old beach shack?

    Loved this post, too.


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