Sunday, June 8, 2014

Storytime Sunday #4: The Parable of the French Bread

The Parable of the French Bread
I am the oldest of six children. I often tell people, “I was my father’s oldest son and my mother’s oldest daughter.” As a result, I was a fairly proficient cook even as a young man. Not long after returning from my service in the U.S. Army, I decided to improve my cooking skills by learning to bake bread. I didn’t want to make ordinary homemade bread like my mother and grandmother. I wanted to make something a little fancier. I decided to learn to bake French bread.
I gathered all my bread making ingredients and began mixing them together. I carefully followed the recipe. One step told me to dissolve the yeast in warm water. Being an impatient young man I thought, “If warm water is good, hot water will be better.

I mixed all the ingredients and set the loaves aside to rise. Nothing happened. I moved them close to the warm oven. Nothing happened.
Not to be defeated, I tried again. I carefully measured the ingredients—double checking myself at every step. I again dissolved the yeast. “If warm water is good, hot water will be better.” I again set the loaves near the warm oven to rise. Again nothing happened. Now I was frustrated.

Although I had watched my mother and grandmother bake bread all my life, I did not know that yeast is a living plant. I did not understand that warm water activated the rapid growth of the yeast resulting in some chemical reactions which produced the carbon dioxide necessary for the bread to rise and be light. Like most self-impressed young men, I thought myself a relative genius on most subjects, but I did not know that hot water would kill the yeast so no leavening could occur.

My mother managed the small general store a few block from where we lived in the small rural community of Marlin, Washington. I walked down the street to seek her advice. I told her I had very carefully followed the recipe and failed twice. She suggested that perhaps the yeast was too old. I purchased new yeast and more ingredients for the bread. I returned home and tried again. “If warm water is good, hot water will be better.” For the third time, my bread did not rise.
In frustration I went back to my mother’s store and told her that the yeast I had just purchased must also be bad. It was the only explanation. I had followed the recipe with the exactness of a scientist. I had failed three times. It must be bad yeast.
My mother then asked me if the water was warm enough when I dissolved the yeast. When I proudly told her that it wasn’t just warm, it had been hot, she started to laugh. It was then I learned yeast wasn’t just an inert ingredient. It was a living thing. Three times I had killed it before it could provide its leavening magic. My bread was flat because, while I had followed the recipe meticulously in most respects, I had failed to observe one seemingly unimportant detail.
Moral: It's better to assume ignorance than false knowledge.
©2014 William L. Steen

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