When we say something is "my bread and butter," we're referring to how we get by in the world. It's about the fundamentals in life -- the sources of your nourishment. In my early 20s, I'd learned the fundamentals of cooking in the kitchen and knew how to put a meal on the table. How strange, then, that I'd never made bread or butter in my adult life.
When I was a kid, we had a bread machine. One of those contraptions you would pull out from the bottom cupboard twice a year and plop on the counter. It was simple: put the ingredients in, with due attention to ratios, plug the machine in, and hit start. The blade would turn and twist. The box would heat up. Delicious smells would start emanating from the kitchen. And an hour or more later, bread would appear.
The loaf was unlike anything you could buy in a store or make by hand. It was round, with a hole in the middle, where the paddles connected to a rod. But looks didn't matter. As a family, we devoured any loaf we made within the hour. The key was warm, fresh bread. You couldn't buy that. Despite how much we enjoyed this warm bread, slathered with butter, the machine would inevitably go back to its hiding place, forgotten for another year.
So making bread from scratch, without a machine to lean on, was intimidating. It seemed so precise. You can't kneed to much. You need to plan -- to buy yeast in advance, to get the right kind of flour. You've got to set aside time for dough to rise, to transform. To me, it was a complex, alchemical process. I'd bought books about bread baking. I'd even read them. But I hadn't dared to try any of the recipes out. Instead, the bread cookbooks sat, like artifacts, on my counter. Who would want to risk failure, when loaves could be bought for $2 at any corner store?
Then I got the idea to start spending Friday sundown until Saturday sundown as an email-free Sabbath. It was my way of trying to unplug on a consistent basis. Just a small act of resistance from the work-creep pervading every minute of my week. The rules were simple: no email; no facebook. The rest of the internet was allowed, but ideally I would fill the time with creative pursuits and cooking.
It didn't take long for me to reach for a challah recipe to match this newfound Friday-evening holiday. I can remember the first time I saw the words "challah" printed on a plastic store case filed with delicious buns. My mom and I called it "CHA-Lah" until my pronunciation was corrected by a jewish friend at school. Egg-bread. Soft, fluffy, sweet. The height of bread culture.
So this week I made my first loaf of bread from scratch. And while I was at it, I made some butter. A small act of claiming autonomy in a world where most of our food in bought. In a silly way, it reminded me of Gandhi making his own clothes. Drawing salt from water; or rather, butter from cream.
As magical as adding yeast to flour was, butter making was entrancing. Pour cream into a standing mixer, turn to high, and wait. Wait longer than you'd think. When you consider this was all done by hand with wooden mortars and pestels, it's a lot longer than you'd think.
As someone who is easily entertained watching laundry machines spin and coffee swirl with milk, it was easy for me to watch the cream turn, slowly transforming. First, whipped cream. Then, whipped butter. I was mesmerized as the white surface shifted with each turn, like an abstract expressionist painting meets stop-motion animation. If you don't believe me, try it yourself. It's just like that. Hypnotic.
Then suddenly, as the cream starts to yellow, it shifts state: from liquid to solid. The fat comes together like scrambled eggs and the bowl is once more visible beneath. Like clouds parting after a long, dreary day. You now have butter.
The last step was a simple combination: warm bread + fresh butter + coarse salt. A fundamental equation from a fundamental act.