One of my earliest sense memories is that of bread baking in the oven, its aroma filling the house with an almost primal comfort. My mother’s homemade bread, occasionally made crunchy with the addition of sunflower seeds or sweetened with a drizzle of honey, found its way into many of my school lunches. And every day at school, when I looked at my hearty, golden-brown sandwich, I longed for a sandwich made with blindingly white Wonder Bread.
Mortifying, but true: my mother sweated and toiled (hand-grinding flour, for the love of God!) to make dense, chewy homemade bread full of whole-grain goodness. Meanwhile, I craved store-bought bread with the texture (and flavor) of Kleenex. Wonder Bread, thankfully, never was served in our house, and I grew to appreciate the humble beauty of a homemade loaf of bread.
Some years later, my mother came to visit me while I was on foreign exchange in Italy. During the two weeks we spent traveling together, my mother and I wore out our shoes in Rome, thrilled and horrified by the Vatican’s opulence. We lost ourselves in the labyrinthine vicoli of Venice on an unseasonably warm February day. And in a Bergamo museum, we nearly collapsed in giggles when we saw yet another Madonna and child painting in which Jesus looked more like a little old man ready for a Palm Beach retirement than a newly arrived infant, sent to redeem the world.
But it was at table that we really experienced Italy together. While I delighted in an endless array of formaggi and gelati, my mother reveled in Italian bread: focaccia, ciabatta, and biscottini with her cappuccino in the mornings. To this day, whenever we fondly reminisce about our Italian sojourn, my mother is wont to remark, “And, oh! That good Italian bread!”Yesterday, missing my mother and longing for la dolce vita, I decided to bake a schiacciata Toscana, a Tuscan bread scented with rosemary and dusted with sea salt. Borrowing a recipe from Marlena de Blasi, I activated yeast in water with a little sugar. I kneaded cornmeal into the pungent dough on a cool marble countertop while Claudio Villa sang a stornello on the stereo. And I waited. I waited for the dough to rise. I waited for it to rise a second time. I waited for the schiacciata, my first bread, to become golden in the oven. Flour, water, salt, yeast, and patience did exactly what they’ve done for millennia; ancient alchemy, simple and profound. Give us this day, our daily bread.
That night, while washing my face, I looked at my reflection in the mirror. For a split second, I saw my mother’s face looking back at me. I smiled.