As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

For Love of Baking

I really hesitated about writing a post about the recipes I use, because it's not my usual type of post.  And yet, whenever baking day rolls around, I can't help but think about how working to provide my family with food (and helping save money on the things we consume often), however seemingly insignificant, really does play a big part in my sanctification.

Baking is my contribution to the family.  While I can't go out and earn an income 40+ hours a week like my dear husband does, I can absolutely contribute in a way that is sacrificial, takes effort, and saves money for us.  Until about four years ago I was in charge of (or at least present for) most of our grocery shopping.  But when I traded in full-time outside-the-home employment for full-time homeschooling, Jeff happily took over. He likes to grocery shop, and there is no way I would ever attempt such a harrowing task with all my little ones in tow unless it's absolutely necessary.  Needless to say, I have no idea what things cost.  I can't tell you what a good deal on milk is, what the going price for bread is, or whether it's cheaper to shop at Costco or a regular grocery store for any particular item.

I was floored to discover the price of bread is up over $2 a loaf.  When I was the primary shopper, it was around $1.50.  And when number five got old enough to eat the same meals as the rest of us, it really tipped the scales in the food department.  Now with six children aged 1-9 and two adults in our house, a full loaf of bread only does one meal for us.  One box of KD is not enough for one meal. We'd polish off one box of granola bars, fruit snacks, or whatever the standard variety pre-packaged snack was in one sitting.  When I started doing the math on the things we consumed regularly, I knew I could do something to offset our growing grocery bill.

I love to bake, but until then I only saw it as something nice or extra to do.  And I only ever made one thing at a time, because I was so exhausted by the time it was over I couldn't think about doing anything else.  Needless to say that as time became more sparse, I baked less and less.  Until I realized how much we were spending on the pre-packaged food we were eating, and made a commitment to start with just one thing on a regular basis.  I set my sights on bread.

At over $2 a loaf, a family the size of mine could easily spend $15-$20 a week on bread.  But I figured out I can make it for a fraction of that cost.  I learned to make bread the traditional way when I first got married from a very dear friend, and I actually did it several times as a new Mom.  But once my son became mobile and was joined by more siblings, the thought of flouring and kneading and flouring and kneading with so many little hands to multiply the mess always caused me to steer clear of it.  Until one day when I was watching the Food Network, and I heard about no-knead bread. This is the simplest bread recipe I have ever followed, and the secret is time.  The science behind it is that sugar and kneading speed up the process the yeast will naturally follow on its own if given the proper amount of time.  So you eliminate the kneading, leave out the sugar, and leave the dough (flour, salt, yeast and water - that's it!) to rise a very long time (12-18 hours) while the yeast works its magic.  I make six loaves at a time, and if I mix them up early in the afternoon, they are ready to be put in pans when I get up the next morning.  They rise in the pans another 2-3 hours, and then bake for 45 minutes.  That's it!  No cutting boards, no floury-mess.  To make this process even easier, I splurged and bought some stoneware bread pans - if you bake bread with any kind of frequency these are a Godsend!  No wrestling to get stuck loaves out, no washing - the loaves just pop out, and a quick scrape of the pan makes it good to go next time.  I have recently started mixing up an extra loaf to use for pizza dough as well - that one does take kneading (because it needs enough flour not to stick to the pan while you're rolling it out), but one of the larger-loaf recipes makes enough for two large pizzas, and is the best pizza crust I have ever made.  One final word about this recipe...I tried my hardest to make it healthier, first by only using whole wheat flour, then by adding tons of grains, then mixing half white and half whole wheat.  It never really rose like normal bread (it won't anyway, the texture will be a bit different) but one day when I was out of whole wheat flour I did the unthinkable and made pure white bread, and the end result made a world of difference.  I didn't mind the denser bread from before, but my whole family hands-down prefers the white, so that's how we're doing it now.  I can get away with 50/50 whole wheat with the pizza dough, but the bread is best white (at least for us).

Once I had bread down, the next item I set my sights on was granola bars.  They were one of my favorite snacks, but so expensive (at around $3 for a box of six, a little cheaper in bulk) and we just went through them so fast.  I began searching for granola bar recipes online, again with the healthiest possible goals in mind.  I tried a few, but they never turned into anything particularly spectacular. Then I found a recipe similar to this one (I couldn't find my original anymore, but this looks pretty much the same) and have been using it ever since.  It's really flexible in terms of adding and substitution (I almost always use almond extract in place of vanilla, and I also add a cup of coconut). You have to let them cool completely before you take them out of the pan or they will crumble, but if you cut them after ten minutes and leave them several hours they will be just perfect. I bake them in a 9x13 pan, and cut them into 40 squares (8 rows by 5 rows) - they need to last a week or it's not worth it for me! I also discovered, after adding milk to the leftover crumbs in the pan, that it makes for an excellent cereal recipe too.  I leave out the chocolate chips and add cocoa, and pack it loosely onto a cookie sheet with raised sides, then give it a stir after ten minutes in the oven to make it crispy.  When it comes out after the full baking time I stir it up again, and it gets crunchy sitting in the air to cool.  To change things up, I'll swap the honey for molasses and add a bit of cinnamon, and I think I prefer that to the chocolate (but I'm alone on that one in my household, the rest are big chocolate fans!)  And then just like that I had a double-duty recipe that not only cut down on my snack budget but also my cereal budget (let's not even begin to talk about how expensive cereal is, or how quickly my family goes through it!)  Now we hardly ever buy cereal boxes (unless it's for a treat) - we eat toast, eggs (we also raise chickens, so we  have an abundant supply) and try to find home-made options that work for us.  We tried traditional oatmeal for a while, but the kids weren't big fans.  This seems to be a much easier way for us to work it into our daily routine.

The final recipe that I have (and use weekly) is a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I bought a cookbook called Kids in the Kitchen when I first got married, and it is the best book with the simplest little recipes in it.  Because I couldn't find a recipe quickly online that was close enough, I just took a picture of it:

My husband's favorite is double chocolate, so I often add cocoa to the dough.  I find that a thicker dough is better than a soft one, but too thick makes a dry cookie, so you might have to play around a bit with how much cocoa to add.  I can get 40 cookies out of this recipe as well.  It's also pretty flexible for add-ins, I made it once with a cup of peanut butter, reduced the flour to half a cup and added 2 cups of oats and they turned out great. I have also substituted the chocolate chips for cranberries and almonds which makes a nice cookie, but again, my family is a big fan of chocolate.

Typically I spend about two hours baking while the baby naps, once a week.  I try to make two batches of cookies, one batch of granola bars, and two batches of cereal.  I use baking stones for all my baking (except the granola bars, which go into a 9x13 glass dish), because I don't have to clean them when I'm done.  Everything works like an assembly line, one recipe baking while the other is being mixed up, and it all goes like clockwork.  After the baking is done I mix up seven batches of bread (in large rubbermaid bowls with lids) - six for bread and one for pizza dough, and leave it to rise until the morning.  My baking day is Tuesday, and all of this normally lasts me at least until Monday, so it's well worth the effort.

Honestly I never thought I would ever have a baking day, but now I'm so grateful that I do.  It never fails that when noon rolls around on Tuesday I start to think, "ugh, not again!"  I'll see the mess of the house, feel a lack of motivation and the desire to just leave it for another day.  But I know this will be my last opportunity until next week, and so I grudgingly press on.  Sometimes the kids help, sometimes I'm patient with that.  Other times they drive me nuts and I shoo them away.  The very best times are when it's only one or two of them, and I can let them help without having ten hands pawing at my recipe at once.  When I can relax and enjoy them learning about what we're doing, and give them a few jobs of their own.  By the end of the day I always feel completely exhausted, but satisfied looking at our stocked shelves.  It's such a small thing, but for me, it makes a big difference.

I remember learning how to bake bread from my friend when I first got married, and how she talked about what sanctifying work it is, making bread.  She of course was talking about the traditional way of rolling out and kneeding, over and over, so much work and effort for a really spectacular product (especially in this day and age).  A true gift of love that can be given to your family, because they know that you couldn't just whip it up on a whim.  She said as she worked she prayed for her family, and offered her sacrifice and labor as gift to them. This is how I have come to see my baking day as well.  My husband works so hard every day for the money he earns, and while I can't do the same thing that he does, I can still contribute in a way that is substantial to my family. I can take the time to learn what their favorite things are, and make sure we have plenty of good food so that we don't have to rely on the grocery store so much.  I can make the effort, plan ahead, find recipes that are easy to work with and can perform double-duty.  I can offer the gift of myself - my time, my commitment, and my sacrifice.  And most especially, I can let this be my prayer for my family. Cooking is the kind of thing that is a little for yourself, but comes to its completion only when enjoyed by others.  I have always loved to bake, but only now that I am in a position where I see it as a necessity have I made it part of my regular routine. And in that way, I delight at how the Lord uses my vocation to bring to fulfilment the desires of my heart that were always there, not only as gift for myself, but also (and most especially) to those in my immediate care.

Thank you Lord for the simpler things in life.  For all the fruits of our labour, we are truly grateful.

1 comment :

  1. Hi Natasha,

    You have inspired me! I have started making my own granola bars and boy are they good. Much better and more filling than the store bought kind. Linda