Freshly-baked homemade challah.
A couple of days ago, one of SWMBO’s colleagues made her a present of a freshly-baked challah. It was a kingly gift.
Maybe we were supposed to save it for Shabbat, but that bad boy didn’t stand a chance. As soon as it arrived home, we started whacking away at it. It was superb. Deliciously rich and eggy, with a perfect texture and crumb. Better than anything I’ve ever had from a commercial bakery. It was a challah for the ages.
It’s a damn good thing I don’t know how to bake bread like that. Perhaps I could learn, but - assuming that I could eventually do it as well as SWMBO’s friend - what would be the benefit? I’d end up weighing 450 pounds.
As I ate slice after buttered slice of this heavenly breadstuff, I began, as I so often do, to wax nostalgic. Specifically, I thought back on the Bakeries Of My Youth.
You remember bakeries, don’t you? Stand-alone bakeries still exist, but they’re a lot thinner on the ground since the advent of the modern supermarket’s baked goods section. And there is no way a supermarket bakery is anything like the Bake Shoppes of yore.
The main difference is the aroma.
Back in my Snot-Nose Days, there stood a bakery, name of Lord’s, on Merrick Road hard by Massapequa High School. Every week or so, we’d go in to get our supply of bread and pastries...at least, before my mother began her flirtation with the products sold by the Dugan Man. She would go in and take a number, and we would spend the time awaiting our turn at the counter looking over the incredible assortment of fancy cookies in the display case...and inhaling the Bakery-Pong, that distillation of vanilla, sugar, almonds, cinnamon, wheat flour, and every other pleasant smell on the planet that uniquely filled the air in this, the Local Bakery.
Ahh, that smell. There is nothing else like it. I remember it even today, owing to a prodigious Sense-Memory. For, alas, it is a smell that is all too difficult to find these days. In the modern supermarket, the aroma of baking is relegated to the back rooms, diluted in the cavernous building, where the bakery must share space with the deli counter and the fish market. And even most bakeries today are part-time sandwich- or coffee-shops, with more ambitious menus that may enhance the bottom line, but which diminish the essential bakeriness of the place.
We’d be standing at the display case, my brother and I, our noses pressed against the glass, our jaws slavering in anticipation. When, finally, it was our turn at the counter, we’d watch as our Mom stepped up and ordered a loaf of bread, which they’d throw into the Magickal Slicing Engine that would instantly turn it into a sheaf of perfect slices. If Mom was feeling magnanimous that day, perhaps she’d get a few cookies for us. ..or something really special. For there was coffee cake. New York crumb cake. Chocolate or cinnamon babka. Cheese Danish. The baker would take her selection, slip it into a little white box, and tie the box with that special red and white striped cord that you would see only in the Bakery.
That cord had magical properties: It would keep Little Prying Hands out of the box until it was time to serve the goodies within.
Now, I go to the local Publix and yank a loaf of bread off the shelf. It just ain’t the same...