Friday December 1, 2006 (Clare is 35, Henry is 43)
CLARE: The snow is coming down in heavy, wet clumps, piling up in the yard on top of what fell last night. Alba presses her nose to the window, excited at the prospect of snowmen and sledding. I dread having to go out and shovel again. I already did this morning, but you can't even tell anymore. For now, though, Henry's teaching me how to make bread, and I'm kneading the dough for dinner rolls. Push, turn, fold, push, turn fold. It's very satisfying, almost meditative in its repetition, until the dough starts to stick to my hands again.
Henry glances up at me as I reach for the flour canister. "Too sticky?" he asks.
I nod, pulling little bits of dough off my fingers.
"Just go easy on the flour," he reminds me.
A sprinkle of flour, then push, turn, fold, push, turn fold. The smell of the loaves of sandwich bread I made earlier fills the kitchen, warm and yeasty.
HENRY: This is looking to be one of the big snowstorms of the year. I watch from the window as Clare shovels the front walk. Alba, armed with a small red shovel, helps as best she can, throwing snow haphazardly, but mostly off to the side. It's the perfect day to stay at home, listening to awful Christmas carols on the radio, and giving another lesson to the star (and only) pupil of the DeTamble Cooking Academy. The blitz of bread baking we're on right now was actually Clare's idea. I'd just as soon get my bread from the local bakery or the supermarket. Bread may be the staff of life, but it takes too long to be worth making at home on a regular basis, in my opinion.
But Clare had this very persuasive argument involving home and ritual and childhood memories of fresh-baked bread taken out of the oven by Nell. Also, I think she remembered the brief phase I went through shortly after we were married, where I bought baguette pans, devoured Bernard Clayton's book, and for a short time we had five different types of flour in the pantry. I gave that up as too much work, especially after a couple of episodes where I went time traveling while I had a carefully and elaborately shaped loaf rising and then came back to find that it had risen and collapsed in my absence. As if being stuck in the middle of a rainstorm in rural Indiana with no shelter hadn't been enough.
I'd had fears of Clare and Alba eating an endless stream of takeout when I was gone, but Clare has turned out to be a pretty good cook. Certainly, I don't need to worry about a repeat of the risotto disaster from that first evening where I met Gomez and Charisse. She'll be able to manage just fine. This baking lesson is just icing on the cake, although not literally. The cake lesson was last week.
I hear the front door open and close, and the sound of Clare stomping snow off her boots. Alba is still outside, rolling an increasingly large snowball around and stripping the front lawn of snow. It's nearly as tall as her waist, and I wonder how she plans on getting it on top of the equally large snowman base she's already set up.
The song on the radio changes, and I roll over to the stereo to switch the station. One can only take so many repetitions of "Feliz Navidad."
CLARE: The dough is done rising, and I punch it down. It sighs as it deflates. Henry shows me how to divide the dough into pieces, and we set to making rolls of every shape imaginable. Cloverleafs and fan-tans, crescents and butterhorns, parker house rolls, and plain little tight balls that we arrange in a pan for pull-apart rolls.
"I want to try!" Alba says. I give her a chunk of dough which she rolls out into a long snake. She then carefully coils it into a spiral, with a little tail sticking out horizontally. "It's a snail," she proclaims. Henry puts it on the cookie sheet with the other rolls.
"You want to learn how to make a turtle?" Henry asks.
"First, you make a big circle like this, then five little circles. Arrange them like so," Henry puts four of the small rounds in an "X" shape around the big round for the legs and one in front for a head, "and voilà! A turtle."
Alba giggles and I smile. We each make a turtle, then roll the rest of the dough out into skinny ropes and tie them into knots, arranging them on the cookie sheet. I brush them with melted butter and set them aside to rise.
When we put them in the oven an hour later, the heavenly bread smell in the house redoubles.
While we're eating dinner later — breaded chicken breasts, peas, and the dinner rolls that have escaped being put in the freezer for later — Alba roars like a movie monster and chomps off the head of her snail.
"Hey, no monsters allowed at the dinner table," I chide her.
"Fowwy," she mumbles around a mouthful of bread.
I turn to Henry. "How is it?"
"Delicious. Best rolls I've ever tasted, and the chicken is perfect."
"Well, I have a very good teacher."
"Mmm, indeed. I should get one of those cooking shows on PBS." He pitches his voice up into a falsetto, mimicking the tones of Julia Child. "Today on the DeTamble Kitchen, we'll be making bread. Oodles of bread. Enough to feed an army or two."
I think of our flour-spattered kitchen, with rolls and bread cooling on most of the horizontal surfaces. "Well, what's the saying? Give a girl a loaf and she'll eat for a day; teach her how to bake —"
"And she just bugs you to show her how to make fancy artisan breads?"
"You did say that you'd teach me that if I mastered the easier stuff," I point out.
"I did, didn't I?" Henry says. "Tell you what, I clipped this recipe out of the New York Times a couple weeks back that says it'll give you a fancy European-style loaf with almost no work at all. There isn't even any kneading necessary."
"Oh, but that's the best part," I say.
"Yeah, but I just want to see how this works. I don't trust a recipe that's basically just mix, wait, and bake, but if you can get really good bread with minimal effort, I'm all for it."
"Lazy," I chide him.
"Indeed. I am a model of indolence," Henry says, stretching and lacing his hands together behind his head.
"More bread, please," Alba says.
"I'll get it." Henry sits back up, grabs the empty bread basket, puts it in his lap, and wheels into the kitchen.
I watch him go and try not to think about how little time we have left. Henry won't tell me exactly when, but I know it's coming. For now, I'm going to savor every moment, hoarding them and locking them up tight for later, when I may need to pull them out and look them over, remembering a warmth like home-baked bread.
Author's notes: This was written for the 2010 Yuletide fic exchange, as a present for rijane. The recipe Henry's referring to at the end is the now-famous No Knead Bread recipe from Jim Lahey. It really does give you amazing bread with minimal effort, and can be found at www (dot) nytimes (dot) com (slash) 2006 (slash) 11 (slash) 08 (slash) dining (slash) 081mrex (dot) html. Just delete the spaces and put in the appropriate punctuation.