(Nov. 28, 2017) One of the great things about traveling is people. You don’t always need big historic sites and grand natural vistas. Sometimes a small moment with a woman you’re sort-of-almost-related-to can provide a very lovely evening.
I’m at my brother’s place in Ohio. Tom and Natalie are also a military family. They have four boys, and currently Natalie’s parents, Joe and Jean, live with them. It’s a great arrangement as it gives them extra help with the boys, and gives the boys a chance to interact with both sets of grandparents in different ways.
Last night Jean and Natalie were concocting a very excellent spaghetti dinner, and Jean was beating, pounding, rolling, and otherwise creatively abusing dough in the pursuit of the perfect baguette.
I was amazed watching the dexterity and speed of her long-practiced hands as she explained the need to smooth out the dough by eliminating air bubbles so it bake with the right consistency. Turns out Jean, who is someone I’d classify as a “master baker” was relatively new to baguettes. I found this surprising; Jean’s confidence in crafting this signature bread from France originally made me think this was yet another bread she commonly baked. Trust me—this woman is a baking maestro!
Throwing down some more flour on the counter, she told me a bit about watching her own grandmother make streusel. Jean’s grandmother was from Germany, and a fascinated young Jean loved to watch as she’d knead, roll, and work the dough. Often times the streusel she made was not for a pasty, but for use in chicken soup!
“It was just amazing to watch her,” Jean said, putting aside her baguette dough and starting to do what looked like a cross between a hula and a slow-motion version of tossing pizza dough. “She’d be using her hands and even her elbows to stretch it out, and it would be so thin you could see through it. I always wondered why it didn’t break apart.”
Jean’s grandmother was work the dough up on her arms. Eventually she’d end with it stretched between both arms, attached to her from elbows to hands, and would work it and stretch it out with the patience of a woman who must have known she was an artist.
Finally Jean returned to her baguettes. She placed one loaf on a try and opened the oven to see if the water in the pan was boiling.
I did a double-take. Water boiling in a pan?!
“You have to create a steam,” Jean explained. The steam and a thin wash of egg whites on the outside of the dough helped give baguettes that wonderfully solid (yet chewy) crust while keeping the bread inside light and fluffy. The egg wash also gave baguettes that very, very subtle sweetness that helped distinguish them from other breads.
About an hour later everything was in order and the family sat down to spaghetti and fresh baguettes. The baguettes were a huge hit and, I decided, even better with spaghetti than traditional garlic bread!
My brother and I both ate way more bread with our spaghetti than we normally do (and we both love bread with spaghetti), and Natalie let the boys have extra bread because the baguettes were such a hit.
There wasn’t anything spectacular about the evening. Nothing earth-shaking or momentous. But it was a wonderful moment getting a glimpse into Jean’s life and, by extension, my sister-in-law’s. I’m really not sure what I found more intriguing; the mock-hula dance Jean did to simulate her grandmother working the streusel dough of the amazingly quick and sure work her hands did on the baguette dough.
As I said, sometimes you don’t need monuments or natural splendor to make your travels memorable. You need only family, stories, sort-of-dancing nearly-your-mother-in-laws…and baguettes!