Just a few days into my summer holiday, and my mom is baking bread for one of our neighbours whose family is visiting Denmark this week. She is always up well before 8 a.m. on these days because baking bread is a several-step process and each one demands time and patience.
Throughout my life, my mom always baked bread at home: traditional Egyptian white and brown pita bread, bagels, buns and rolls. She was born with a flair for baking; never picking up a cook book yet somehow instinctively knowing how much of each ingredient to use in cakes, cookies and pastries.
When she first moved to Canada from Egypt, mom was troubled to find that most of the bread sold in grocery stores and bakeries contained lard of pig fat, often used as shortening, which Muslims are forbidden from eating. Growing up in a majority Muslim country she never had to concern herself with the ingredients of basic food items like bread. But in Canada, many freshly baked and packaged breads and biscuits contained lard, which she had no intention of starting to consume.
So as a practicing Muslim, she decided to start baking bread at home.
This week, as she knelt over the big plastic mixing basin she has always used to firmly knead together flour, milk, salt and yeast, I asked her how she learned to bake bread. She responded intuitively in Arabic, ‘life taught me ya Daliah’.
My mom often gives that response when she is unable to pin down exactly how events transpired. In this case, it is completely true. She did not learn from any book or person how to bake bread, she just followed her instincts in the kitchen and reacted to the needs of her family. In addition to avoiding store-bought baked goods containing lard, baking at home helped her save a good deal of money as my father finished his university studies and struggled to start his career.
As a child, my mom would watch her mother prepare the dough for traditional Egyptian pita bread. Then she and her sisters would take the uncooked loaves to an open fire-powered oven in the neighbourhood for baking. I suppose watching her mom bake bread somehow sparked her talent, but my mom learned how to bake many varieties of bread all on her own. She often experimented with new varieties using milk instead of water, adding raisins, sesame seeds or spices.
My favourite bread is my mom’s classic brown pita bread made with white and whole wheat flour, which is especially irresistible when drizzled with butter as soon as it comes out of the oven. My mom bakes dozens of loaves at a time and freezes them so they can be consumed for many weeks.
I cannot imagine baking bread myself. The process is quite daunting and requires a great deal of elbow grease and patience. After vigorously kneading together flour, fresh yeast, salt and milk, mom covers the large heap of dough with several thick clothes to allow it to rise.
After about an hour, she takes hand-sized pieces of dough and rolls them into balls, setting them on the counter and covering them for an hour or so until they rise further.
Depending on the type of bread, she will roll out the dough into a flat circular shape if she is baking pita bread. Otherwise, she’ll mould each small mound of dough into rectangular buns or bagels. These are placed in oven pans and then covered again to allow them to rise once more before baking.
The scent of freshly baked bread is something that consistently reminds me of home, which is why waking up to find my mom diligently kneading dough this week was a delight because I haven’t been to our home in Canada for two years. When she visits me or my sisters she doesn’t bake bread; it is one of her routines only when she is in her kitchen.
This week she made her delicious white buns kneaded with milk to make them fluffy and rich. As soon as the first batch was ready, mom filled a basket with fresh rolls direct out of the oven and took them over to a neighbour’s home for his family visiting from Europe, along with a basket of fruit and a cake baked with fresh local strawberries.
My mom is one of those neighbours who would lend you her heart if you asked. She loves baking and sharing, happy to receive only a smile of gratitude in return.
These days, there are many varieties of bread available in grocery stores made from vegetable or beef shortening rather than lard. But mom has become accustomed to baking her own bread.
We don’t mind, her bread is distinctive and delicious. Luckily this week, after sharing bread with a few neighbours, there were plenty of buns left over for the two of us. Nice to be home.