Privilege Blog

How To Make A Mediocre Baguette, Or, Saturday Morning at 11:33am

Everyone reacts a little differently to a crisis, and their reaction changes over time.

This I know.

I also know that all of California is under a shelter-at-home order, that there are currently 306 cases of Covid-19, in my county and the one right next door to me and their combined population of 2.76M, and that I and my beloveds are currently well. I keep track of the data.

I know that I hope that you and your loved ones are also well.

Other than that, really, I a few days ago I became possessed by the idea of making baguettes, and therefore did so last night. I had not made bread since third grade when my friend Alison’s mother threw her a homesteading birthday party where we also churned butter. Can’t say the experience stood me in very good stead.

I relied on the King Arthur Flour website recipe and videos. First, yesterday morning at 7am I made something called “polish.” Essentially a starter? I think? Flour, water, salt, yeast. It was supposed to sit for 14 hours, and start to bubble. Oh my gosh you guys I can be such a dope.

First, my house is cold, on purpose, but not hospitable to yeast. I don’t think the polish did whatever it was supposed to. Never mind, I forged ahead. I added more flour and water and yeast and salt, and mixed it in the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer that I never use. Yes, I have a dough hook. That part was fun, like physics in action, wobble, wobble, wobble.

But I had only skimmed the recipe before starting this project and I missed a 45-minute long step in my time estimate. By 9:33pm last night I’d only barely made a ball of dough.

It needed to rise. Then rise again. Then it had to be divided into three pieces and “turned out” onto a “lightly greased surface.” I spend a lot of time trying to keep grease off my countertops. Hey ho, butter up your granite and away you go.

I will say, watching someone shape a baguette is extra-calming. Recommended. 11/10 as Faux Fuchsia used to say in the old days.

So I shaped, and then put them into this dishtowel covered in flour. It’s called a “couche.” Kind of means “sleeper car for bread,” right? I could not believe I had to grease plastic wrap. Thought someone was playing a trick.

It was by now so far past my bedtime that club music should have started playing. The baguettes had to rise some more. But of course. I entered another universe.

Eventually, we were done. I say we because the bread had taken on a life of its own.


I supposed I’d been expecting a spectacular outcome–either the best baguette ever made in an old suburban oven, or, a very, very long Saltine. This was neither. Just bread.

Then, suddenly, I had to have some with butter, even though it was past midnight.

As I ate, it occurred to me that maybe I’d undertaken this out-of-character project because yesterday was the anniversary of my mom’s death. In her last days, I’d sometimes ask the staff where she lived if we could have butter. I’d pull the little piece of paper off the institutional pat, and smear it on the white bread the residents were allowed to have. She veritably gobbled it up.

But that isn’t something I know either.

In the face of a crisis it seems that I a) count what can be counted b) take on a project that appears to be precise and skill-intensive and somewhat mysterious, only to wind up alone in my kitchen, the night dark outside, eating a piece of mediocre bread and old butter as a treat for the woman who bore me.

I imagine your response is different; but also that it’s your very own and shines a light on something deep.

Much love and a safe weekend to all.

76 Responses

  1. You really cracked me up with this one. Thank you. We all could use a giggle these days.
    We just got back from a 4 day camping trip. Here in Idaho we are encouraged to get outside. Just keep our distance. There are some party areas in the campground for large gatherings. These were cordoned off with yellow caution tape. The deer didn’t seem to care. I felt blessed. So far, so good.

    Hope your hubby enjoyed the bread, possibly at a more civilized time. Mine would have gone nuts with it.


    1. @MaryAnne, I am glad to make you laugh. I amused myself. And I think getting outside is a really good thing, if we live somewhere near enough space to stay safe.

      The bread has been enjoyed this morning;).

  2. Oh, Lisa, you are such a Sturdy Gal – your mom would be proud of you!

    Bread is good, butter is good, and together they can be whatever magic you need…

  3. THE ITALIAN is making BREAD NOW as I sit and READ BLOGS!
    His are round LOAVES.
    YOU know those ITALIANs and FRENCH have A THING!
    EAT A WHOLE ONE FOR ME!!!!!!!!!

  4. I forgot to mention your MOTHER!A YEAR ALREADY………..seems like yesterday!

  5. I am going to make no knead Dutch oven bread tonight and bake it in the morning…. it is so satisfying!
    We do what we can to stay healthy in mind and body.

    1. @Debbie, I should have started with that, I could even have had good advice from a friend if I’d done that! I’m pig-headed, what can I say:). We do what we can.

    2. @Debbie, If you want to watch someone’s adventures in making the no-knead bread, head to Instagram and find Mary Kay Andrews. I think she’s on batch #3 and still hasn’t got a decent loaf.

  6. “To do nothing is the most difficult thing in the world. The most difficult, and the most intellectual,” said Oscar Wilde. So, you’re doing something, even if you deemed the outcome mediocre, and that’s grand if you enjoyed yourself. I just re-potted a red flowering bromeliad from the holidays in our silver wine cooler. Am also reading Camus’ The Plague, to see how others coped with monotony (but this is not a time when people shell peas). Any suggestions on what others are doing inside? I spent last December having the kitchen and bath deep-cleaned and organizing closets, so there’ll be none of that. But here in Connecticut we’ve been sheltering in-place. Would love to know what others are doing.

    1. @Nancy, Wow, The Plague. I can recommend a television show, if you do that. The Leftovers on HBO is relevant for today. Shelling peas, well, I’d have to have grown them already and I didn’t manage to do that;). Your bromeliad must look beautiful in its new spot. I hope other readers can offer some good ideas–I do see on Twitter that many courses are now available for free online.

  7. When I was sixteen I would bake myself into oblivion. I think it was a way of locking out all the chaos around me. I have since tried similar baking activities and they have left me wondering how did I ever do that. You know the back hurts, the legs are tired and I’m too far into the project to stop. You probably can relate.
    Missouri has been placed on lock down. I feel like I’m living some dystopian dream.
    I am especially happy to hear that your beautiful daughter is safe. Let us all be safe.


    1. @luci, Aw, I am so sorry you needed comfort as a teen. And I really hope your lockdown is OK for you. I keep being shocked by how dystopian this all is. Let us all be safe.

  8. Oh, that’s such a tough anniversary. And everything is so much harder now – our emotions are raw and everything is so uncertain. There is so much out of our control.

    But we can do the basic things. We can – literally – feed ourselves. Which is so soothing. And so life affirming. That even in the midst of this fear, we can have our daily bread. xoxo

    1. @Texan In Exile, That is beautiful. Give us this day our daily bread. When I was little my family still said bedtime prayers, and that was part of them. Thank you.

  9. I’ve been baking crackers. First flatbread with lots of seeds and grains and today I will attempt wholemeal digestives.

  10. Italian husband bakes bread weekly, along with a pizza, usually on Sundays. Even if the product proves mediocre, the aroma is divine.
    My mother entered a nursing home three weeks ago. They give her a couple more weeks, at the most, and have now locked down the joint, so no visitors. The anguish is real, the situation surreal.
    Let us all do metta for the front line responders.

    1. @Rosie, I am so, so sorry about your mom. I have often thought that we were lucky Mom died before all this started. I can only imagine and I send my best thoughts to your family.

      I did not know about Metta, here’s a link for anyone else who doesn’t know. That sounds like exactly what we need to.

  11. Maybe because I know you IRL, this was like a SNL skit to me. I could totally envision the whole thing. Buttering Saran wrap??? I make soup, that’s my go-to. Just dropped a pot off on my daughter’s doorstep while they peered through the windows and blew kisses. I love to cook and make up recipes, but despise baking. Maybe too precise, too bossy? But I love that you did it, and it was a really fun read.

    1. @KSL, Hahahahaha! Yes, if I knew how I would have made a video because it was just so silly, so fun, so profound, and so dopey all at once! Baking is precise and bossy–I think I did it also because I’ve watched every single possible episode of Great British BakeOff and I can now put a voice to the boss? Does that make sense?

      I hope you and your kids and grandkids can soon expand your isolation pods to include each other xoxox.

  12. My mom’s birthday tomorrow (she would have been 89) so I can relate. . . And mine loved butter as well. Your baguette looks decent from here — very impressive for anyone, especially a bread beginner.
    I’ve been turning out my sourdough loaves a little bit faster than two people can eat, even if one of them (not me) makes up toast with peanut butter most evenings even though he’s eaten 4 or 5 slices through the day. . . There’s something so restorative about the process for me. . . Sounds as if that’s a possibility for you, but the verdict’s still out ;-) . . .
    A great post — I love the way you fold a bit of the profound into the mix, along with the fumbling and the humour. xo

    1. @Frances, A very happy birthday to your mama, who I imagine will reassemble herself for at least a moment to feel her connection to you, somewhere nearby. I love the idea of your loaves overflowing. I think I would like sourdough better than regular baguettes but that seems like trying to ski jump before I’ve made it down the bunny slope.

      Thank you very much for the encouraging words. Both about my baby loaves and my old lady words. xoxoxox.

  13. “your response is different; but also that it’s your very own and shines a light on something deep” Perfect.

    Funnily enough I too got the urge to back bread. it must be some primal thing.
    I’ve asked a relative to bring home some yeast so I could bake bread. Not sure what it will be but it will ne bread. A solid earthy basic need. I think that’s what we all need these days.

    So nice to read you this Saturday. It means we’re all here and everything is fine.
    Thinking of your mother and the butter.

  14. I’ve never attempted risen bread, so kudos to you!

    Once le Monsieur decided he was going to learn to make homemade pizza. Between making the dough, prepping the toppings and the general learning curve, it was a 10-hour project. :-D Not including clean-up.

  15. I think of bread as a delivery system for butter. And as far as I am concerned, almost everything is betta with butta.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Keep well, Suz from Vancouver

  16. i love the process of baking bread and I’m doing it again this afternoon. One thing I’ve learned—not everyone enjoys the same thing. I haven’t been able to persuade any of my friends that bread baking is for them. I read the comment above saying “that’s why we have bakeries”. Another friend told me that she prefer frozen bread dough. I just know that I love the NY Times No Knead bread recipe. It is super simple and the result please everyone. Your recipe looks complicated.

  17. Baking bread sounds like an excellent way to cope with grief, even if at first you didn’t realize that’s what you were doing. Maybe next time start the dough the night before?

    1. @MJ, My subconscious maybe did me a favor;). And I would have started the dough the night before, but my house gets so cold at night that I worried I’d kill everything.

  18. “. . . so far past my bedtime that club music should have started playing.” Lol! Thanks, I needed that!

  19. REPLY TO LUCI (above):

    My daughter and her family are also sequestering themselves in Connecticut (at their weekend place in Norfolk). When they de-camped from Manhattan, she wrote, “We are bringing pasta, wine, and sourdough starter” – and so far, they are doing okay! Gotta love those carbs …

    As for what hubby and I are doing in the lovely rural outskirts of Princeton, NJ during this difficult time: he is single-handedly repairing a trail in the woods across the street, and I am indoors, going through piles of paper. (This is made easier by running episodes of “Rosemary and Thyme” via YouTube on the computer sitting at the end of my work table!) I am also catching up on my backlog of New Yorker magazines…

    Since I am not in Paris (as I had planned), I am trying to do something French each day – so far, I have memorized a French poem, done a virtual tour of the Louvre online, and am now reading “Bonjour Tristesse,” by Francoise Sagan, which is such an emblem of my Fifties youth (Jean Seberg, anyone?). With ma petite dictionnaire Larousse close at hand, of course!

    I may even embark upon reading Proust, if this home-bound situation goes on long enough!

    (Please note that, although a baguette could not be more French, there is absolutement zero chance that I would ever try to create same. I think I will let Lisa’s experience stand in for my own “quelque-chose francaise” today!)

    Bonne sante a vous, et a tous les gentils lecteurs de la belle (et sage) Mlle Lisa.

    1. @Victoire, I am terribly sorry you had to miss a trip to Paris, but your current pursuits and those of your husband sound so worthwhile.

      And while you may not be baking French, I couldn’t read Proust right now unless my life depended on it. It’s all about what we can focus on and what we cannot.

  20. Anniversary’s like these are difficult – I’m so sorry.

    For the first several days of staying in I was a bit frozen.I felt like I was in a movie, not real life. I’m adjusting, today at least, to this new normal and appreciating the slower pace that allows time to take walks, stay in touch with loved ones and try new recipes. I’ve learned some new things too, like wearing red lipstick when you FaceTime is flattering.

    Thank you for this post; it’s just what I needed.

  21. that’s a challenging anniversary as you pass the time when you can think “this time last year”. Big hugs to you. Bread and butter is the best thing for challenging times.

  22. May I recommend “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day”? You make a very wet dough and put it into the fridge. Ready for bread? You take out a grapefruit sized piece, let it rise, and then pop it onto a baking stone in the oven. Easy peasy, amazing quality. Enjoy!

  23. The first anniversary is always hard, but what a lovely way to remember your mother. This crisis is going to bring out a lot of things out of the woodwork and is going to be a cathartic time for many. I love that you have taken on such an interesting project and the bread looks delicious! I could use some home baked bread with butter right about now, it’s great comfort food. x

  24. What a beautiful post. These are such strange days and whatever gets us through gets us through. Stay safe.

  25. Your bread may have been mediocre (in your view) but your post was both entertaining and touching. Laughed in wry company at your long baking slog. You did better than I.

    Yesterday I was making some similar bread (polish and all) but I realized several hours in as I was kneading that I had forgotten the salt! The dough was shiny and elastic and there was no way to add salt. I imagined a peculiarly bland loaf, hours away, so I stopped cold, threw it in the bin and read a book. Hahaha! It hardly seems possible a year has passed since your mother. Those are tough anniversaries – I feel for you. I really love opening the Saturday email with your posts.

  26. Simple pleasures, bread and butter. Like a nice cup of tea or a hot bubble bath or breeze through an open window. I have always enjoyed them but perhaps now with a little more relish. Such times we live in! Such thoughts through the brain! And on we go.

  27. The words hearth and home come to mind. I would have stayed up too for a big hunk of buttered bread. A lovely tribute to your mother. I used to bake bread when I lived abroad, in a populous but remote area, using a Coleman camper stove-top oven my mum sent me by post. I was the most popular “foreign teacher” in our city. It was always a comfort to bite into that hard-won delight that reminded me of home.

  28. The words hearth and home come to mind. I would have stayed up too for a big hunk of buttered bread. A lovely tribute to your mother. I used to bake bread when I lived abroad, in a populous but remote area, using a Coleman camper stove-top oven my mum sent me by post. I was the most popular “foreign teacher” in our city. It was always a comfort to bite into that hard-won delight that reminded me of home.

  29. We surprise ourselves sometimes. Who knows where the response to change, or grief, or memory, of crisis, or even just the unrest of the unknown comes from? I love this tale in its earnestness and its humor, in the way it speaks to something so essentially human.

    I’ve been thinking of bread as well, although I have made bread in the past. At the moment I have none of the raw materials in my house, so any attempt will wait. I wonder if it harkens to something elemental, bread and butter — home, community, nourishment of both body and soul. And brava for taking on this new adventure, and for sharing, with humor, because really what else do we have? our community and our ability to laugh at ourselves and get by. I do think your mother would be proud.

  30. Or a very, very long Saltine. I laughed out loud. Needed to do that in these strange times.

  31. Your bread looks delicious and must be served with butter! I love baking bread as the kneading process is so soothing….that and making soup. The chopping is almost therapeutic.
    We are cocooning here at home and hoping that the curve of new Covid 19 cases will “flatten” that’s the goal we are all wanting for…meanwhile we are taking time to savour the simple routines each day brings.
    Stay safe.

  32. I was diagnosed celiac via genetic test when I was 50, and although there are some better gluten free breads around, let’s get real–nothing replaces the original. I’m drooling over your pictures.

    My mother is in a care facility. It has all levels of care: independent, assisted and nursing. My mom actually should be in nursing or assisted care–she refuses to take the bone drugs and exercise was always distasteful to her, and she has the bones of a 108 year old person. She is a fall risk and she falls frequently but refuses to move to a higher level of care. Anyway, her facility went on lockdown March 10th as a precaution and not long after that they were the first facility in my state with a positive case. She’s on lockdown in her apartment and I’m very worried about her and how to get her two cats out of there if she falls or gets sick.

    My antidotes are cleaning and gardening. I vacuum and I scrub floors. I’m fortunate that I can work from home during this time but my husband is now home full time and there are adjustments there.

  33. Anniversaries are sad,but one has to think about all the wonderful times together….
    Bread and butter are my one of my favourite dishes, I don’t see any flaws in your version,it must have smelled divine… Bread and salt are presented as a welcome here,as well as in many other slavic countries
    Grocery deliveries are a lottery here,so,we’ll ate cakes…as we have only baking powder….and sometimes unleavened bread
    Stay safe

  34. In response to Nancy and Victoire:

    Here in New South Wales, Australia, we have just begun a kind of staged lockdown. The kids are in complete isolation but my husband and I are still allowed to go to work at our respective offices (day on, day off – not leaving the four small children in isolation alone…although some days it is tempting…) Homeschooling has begun in earnest – they may not see a friend or a cousin for months.

    Today for the first time since the twins were born I did the grocery shopping on my own, on the way home from work. Not the joyously liberating experience I had imagined it would be, in the long, challenging year at home with them all.

    At home, we teach them their morning lessons and then head out to explore our garden and the bush that covers our little 17ha property. We plant, and pick, and eat – currently late season peaches, new season apples, and glorious, glorious raspberries.

    We are revegetating part of our block, and have 480 trees to plant over the coming weekends – 70 in so far, with blisters to prove it. We are never bored here.

    In fact, it is a peaceful, beautiful time of year – all the more so after the most terrifying and sad summer of our lives. The air is clear and smells amazing; it is neither too hot nor too cold; the kids are safe and happy. We had 200mL of rain – it is devastatingly green. Even though we know that the drought has not broken, the climate is a wreck, and the virus has plans for us all – it is soothing our tired minds.

  35. Response to Elizabeth in New South Wales:

    Thank you for this! I know that Australia went through hell with those fires, and it so good to learn that you are having a period of peace and beauty, with burgeoning greenery, and glorious raspberries… (which I envy!)

    The world is so out of whack right now, and it’s important to appreciate what we have close at hand. And to enjoy ways of being together, even as we are forced to stay apart.

  36. Lisa, thank you! I laughed, »a long saltine » teared up thinking of you and your mother (and how your sharing helped me when I was losing my mom) and also made me hear the Hotel Costes playlist in my mind,(just couldn’t do club music but that is pretty darned hip!). And I am team no knead bread from NYT with all the salted butter you, your mom and me and mine could ever want. whatever gets us through the night…

  37. Yeast dies at the sight of me. However, I have read that if you have a heating pad, it will help with the rising part. Bonne chance avec le pain.

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