A Father's Day Tribute to Gramps
Family Adventure in the Backcountry

The Perfect Father's Day Project: Baking Bread with the Kids

Today's post is from Aaron Bobrow-Strain, is associate professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington and the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. He writes and teaches on the politics of the global food system.

4467In a 1974 New York Times column, the great Craig Claiborne offered the following instructions for filling home ovens with the steam necessary to produce crisp-crusted European artisan bread:

Take two iron ingots, about 6-10 pounds in total, and heat them on a stove burner until “fiery hot.” Then, “using extreme caution and wearing padded asbestos gloves” transfer the glowing ingots to a baking pan at the bottom of your oven. Next, place your loaves in the oven and pour boiling water over the ingots. This will immediately produce billows of scalding steam so “shut the oven as hurriedly as possible.”

I was hooked after “fiery hot” and “asbestos gloves”—what a great project
to try with kids! A perfect Fathers’ Day activity!

“Or maybe not,” my wife commented from the other room, reading my mind.

I’m a dad and a slightly obsessive amateur bread baker, but those two sides of me don’t always mix that well. My kids don’t really like to bake bread. They like to eat it, and they like to putter around the edges while I bake. But they don’t yet have the patience to see a European artisan loaf through its 8-15 hours journey from mushy white paste to glorious golden richness. 

Or maybe it’s me who lacks patience… Either way, instead of fighting against short attention spans, I weave my kids into the baking process with quick, fun activities. Since I’m a food historian, they usually derive from an oddity of the past.

Here are two favorites that provide a dash of instant gratification during baking day and a way for fathers (0r mothers) to connect with their kids in the kitchen. Even better, there’s only a small risk of explosion.

Instant Bread

In 1939, scientists at the Wallace and Tiernan Laboratories in Newark hooked a ball of dough to two electrodes, cooking it perfectly evenly with no crust formation. This demonstrated something that most bakers already knew: bread’s rich, nutty flavor comes primarily from browning reactions in the crust. No crust, no flavor.

When I asked another dad, who is an experimental physicist and beer brewer, how to reproduce this test, he offered a surprisingly simple option: microwave the dough.

It was an immediate hit, and a great source of pleasure at precisely the stage in baking when my kids start to lose interest. 

Here’s how it works: have your kids shape a small lump of rising dough into a ball (about the size of a golf ball). Then microwave it on low for about a minute, or until the dough has doubled in size (and just before it bursts into flames). The result—as predicted by science—is a doughy, flavorless gumball. But my kids love it more than anything. Hands down it’s their favorite thing to do on baking day.

Finish with a Pizza

European artisan breads need to cool for at least an hour, if not more, after baking. Tearing into a loaf too soon interrupts key chemical processes of flavor and texture development—but try telling that to your kids.

Instead, I distract them with an old Italian bakery tradition: set aside a hunk of raw dough (it can sit on the counter under a damp towel while you proof and bake your loaves). Then, as soon as you take your bread out to cool, take advantage of the hot oven and baking stone by making a pizza out of the set aside dough.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how to make “the perfect” pizza crust--all kinds of complicated formulas and mystical thinking circulate on this topic. But, really, any well-fermented Italian or French bread dough will make a delicious pie.

Let your kids stretch out the crust. It will get dropped on the floor and torn full of holes, but they’ll love it (and it’ll distract them from the cooling loaves). Top the crust with whatever you have around. A simple pizza bianca (topped with olive oil, salt, and rosemary) is easy.