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By Emily-Jane Hills Orford
"Will you teach me how to make bread, Aunt Ruth?” She wasn’t really an aunt. She and Uncle Jamie were what Mom described as a courtesy aunt and uncle – very close family friends. The Clarkes were frequent visitors to our home and it did make it easier for us children to refer to them as aunt and uncle rather than Mrs. and Archdeacon Clarke.
Yes, Uncle Jamie was a minister, actually a missionary who ministered to a wide-spread flock of parishioners in northern Quebec. He traveled to his many isolated communities by dogsled in the winter and fishing vessel in the short summer months. Once a year, he was given a sabbatical, to bring his family south to visit family and update medical and dental issues. Quite often, the family of three young children, two boys and a girl, would stay with us. This year, 1971, they were living in our third-floor apartment for the entire year so that Uncle Jamie could continue his studies at Huron College.
Mom was busy starting her teaching career, so she was happy to have Aunt Ruth and the children upstairs when I came home from school. I was still in elementary school, my older siblings were in high school and, so they claimed, capable of caring for themselves. Mom wasn’t too sure if she agreed with them on that score. Having a young family upstairs also allowed me to start my babysitting career. It was a safe environment, being so close to my parents while still having some responsibilities on caring for others on my own. My sister and I took turns babysitting and teaching the children how to play the piano. All around, it was a beneficial situation.
Aunt Ruth was very creative. My mother was, too, but starting her teaching career didn’t allow for the time to teach me new things. Aunt Ruth filled that role for the year they lived upstairs. One thing I especially remembered was Aunt Ruth teaching me how to make bread. Mom used to bake bread, too, but time no longer allowed that luxury. Aunt Ruth made the best whole wheat bread. So, when I asked her to teach me, she was more than thrilled.
We chose a day when my sister was available to care for the three young ones. Aunt Ruth suggested using the small apartment kitchen as there would be less traffic interrupting our work and less chance of a sudden cold draft affecting the rising bread. I helped her clear away their breakfast dishes and made space to work and we got busy: raising the yeast, adding the flour, kneading, kneading, kneading. Aunt Ruth was a real stickler for kneading for a good fifteen minutes. We took turns, her arms more used to the rigorous exercise than mine were.
We patted the dough into a ball and placed it in a bowl, covering it with a slightly damp cloth before setting it in a warm place to rise. “It has to rise for an hour and a half,” Aunt Ruth explained. “Then we’ll punch it down and knead it some more before making it into loaves. Now, how about we go through my recipes and see what else you’d like to make. We still have some apples. Would you like to help me make my Dutch Apple Cake?” I nodded. I loved Aunt Ruth’s apple cake. “Was it really a royal recipe?” I asked. Aunt Ruth smiled, a little bit of pride showing through. “Yes. It is. The Dutch royal family lived in Canada during the Second World War. My mother was able to share some recipes with their royal chefs. This was one of the recipes the Dutch chef claimed was a royal favorite.”
While waiting the rising dough, we set to work preparing the batter for the apple cake. Then we peeled and sliced some apples and put it all together and into the oven. We had just finished cleaning up from making the cake when it was time to check on the bread dough. Satisfied that it was double in size, Aunt Ruth carried it to our floured countertop and we set to work again, kneading the dough.
Aunt Ruth lightly greased and prepared the loaf pans, then helped me shape the dough into two loaves. “That should be just enough for lunch, don’t you think?” She knew our family had some healthy eaters, namely my teenage brothers. “I guess so.” I wasn’t so sure. The doughy loaves looked rather small. She must have noticed my hesitation, because she quickly added, “Don’t worry, Emily. We have to let the dough rise for another hour. It’ll be double the size before we bake it.”
She covered the loaves and set them in the same warm corner as before. The yeasty smell of rising dough was now mixing with the sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg as the apple cake baked in the oven. “The cake takes an hour. That will be our clue as to when to put the loaves in the oven to bake. Now, let’s look at some more recipes. Shall we?”
The hour passed quickly as we made future plans for baking expeditions. Since Aunt Ruth’s daughter was still a toddler and too young to enjoy working in the kitchen and the boys had shown no interest, she was delighted to borrow me as a substitute and teach me some of her baking skills.
I was very proud of our morning’s work. The apple cake came out of the oven in time for the bread to go in. When the bread was done, I was pleased to see that it was nicely browned and evenly round at the top. We brushed the tops lightly with butter and set them on a cooling rack.
As lunchtime approached, we carried our contributions downstairs to the main floor where my sister had orchestrated the boys, my brothers and Aunt Ruth’s sons, to set the table. We set the bread on a bread board and carried it to the table, placing it at the head where Dad could do the honors of slicing it. The steam was still swirling in the air above the loaves and everyone took a deep breath, breathing in anticipation of slices of hot, tasty bread.
Once all the food was placed on the table, Uncle Jamie lead us in grace. Dad picked up the bread knife and proceeded to slice the bread. One slice. Two slices. Three. And there it was. A gaping hole. Uncle Jamie started to chuckle. “Holy bread!” Dad joined him, chuckling as he continued to slice around the big, gaping hole in the centre of the loaf of bread. “You should know. Holy bread indeed.” Everyone was laughing, now. Except me. Aunt Ruth tried to console me, but I was hurt. I didn’t see the humor in my first attempt at baking bread. It may be holey bread, but it certainly wasn’t holy bread. Even if Uncle Jamie was a minister.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford has published several books, creative nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart. For more information about the author, check out her webpage at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca