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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Smell of Freshly Baked Bread as Muse

A friend gave us a bread machine as a gift and, yesterday, I made my first loaf of bread. I was both excited and a little nervous because, like Oprah, I love bread; but also, I’d never made it, so I wasn’t sure how well it might turn out.

It seemed like a pretty straight deal, but a more precise scientific process that requires adherence to measurements. That last part was the cause for my concerns. I am a rebel, after all.

I have an innate need to tweak recipes… In fact, the simplest recipe I know is the chocolate vinegar cake and last week when I made it, I changed it up and combined white distilled vinegar with Balsamic vinegar – which intensifies the chocolate taste, changes the cake to a reddish hue, and seems to yield a moister cake.

I will admit to doing some research and acquainting myself with substitutions so that I could tweak a little bit. The first loaf was a success: it tasted great, it had a great crust, and the texture was perfect! The greatest gift, though, was its aroma.

It took me a series of dreams and memories to come to the realization that this gift keeps on giving.

The sense of smell is probably the strongest sensory stimulation. There is no scientific data to prove that aromatherapy does half of what alternative medicine practitioners may claim, but you know full well the effect the smell of pizza has on you.

People have waxed poetic over the scent of a woman, the smell of the sea, the intoxicating perfume of petrichor, or the sweet smell of cognac… The aroma of brewing coffee almost has the same effect as the first sip!

Smell can stimulate memories and a host of other emotional responses from nostalgia to lust and everything in between. Writing about smell, of course, gives your reader another way to immerse herself in your story. But what I was left thinking, after feverish dreams made lovelier by the scent of freshly baked bread permeating the whole house, was the path the muse laid bare because of it.

In my dreams, I was transported to my childhood and one of my weekly trips to the bakery with my grandmother. The bakers were either Cubans or Spaniards—that was never clear. My job was to sit quietly and let Mom conduct her business.

The short and stout baker would flirt with her and, his partner would make a show about conspiring behind her back and bring me a chocolate and some pastry.  As we approached, my grandmother always warned me not to ask, not to beg, not to even try. Every time the men curtsied at my feet and treated me like a Menina.

Mami liked that particular bakery because she could be her own person there (not wife, or cousin to this one, neighbor to that one). She could just be Doña Aurelia with her little girl, have a cup of coffee and be neighborly for 20 minutes once a week, and she and the owner’s wife would chit chat like old friends for a little bit and make Mami’s week.

I began my appreciation of chocolate and pastries and fresh bread, but also my love of people watching began here, during these weekly visits.  I had not thought of that bakery in some time, though when I am sick and have fevered dreams, I tend to stop there for a small cup of muddy Puerto Rican coffee and a fresh donut or a piece of bread right out of the oven with a dab of butter.

That this transformed to Cappuccinos and sketching at any number of tiny Village or Chelsea cafés, or a writing session at a Park-side coffeehouse simply did not occur to me to have its roots set in my toddler years.

I visited and sat at that childhood bakery on and off for years, though once I hit pubescence and realized I could say no, I refused to go grocery shopping with my grandmother. It meant I lost out on the weekly sugary treats, on bonding, and maybe even on witnessing stories unfolding before me. Still, the aroma of flour and sugar, milk, salt and yeast baking into golden loaves stayed deep within.

Given the inspiration that sprung from the heavenly aroma from that little loaf of bread I baked yesterday, I am fairly sure if I hold my breath a little deeper stories will spill out when I exhale. I certainly will try it the next time I bake another loaf. Now if only writing the stories would help maintain the weight down as we consume all the freshly baked delicious bread!

Of course, we can buy bread, but there is a special magic in creating and now I crave the smell of freshly baked bread as muse to transform and transport me.