When I dream, I dream of my grandmother’s fruit bread. Every winter, she made enough loaves to feed a small village, and we feasted on the rich, crumby, aromatic fruits of her labor. There was always a pot of candied fruit on the stovetop, always a loaf of bread rising on the windowsill. The loaves were as big as my torso, and seven of my cousins had to work together to carry them to the table. To make the sea salt for her loaves, my grandmother spent hours boiling down sea water. She fed her bread starter on whey protein. Her stollen was like a warm hug for your esophagus.
The days are short, the nights are long, and Mr. Bagel is staying out later and later to finish an end-of-quarter project with his boss, Amanda. I felt myself withering in the dark house. I was searching my recipe books for a light to guide me when I recalled Grandmother’s stollen, warm as the inside of a room-temperature volcano. My desire carved a hole straight through me. I craved the comfort of freshly-baked bread, the joy of singing the clean-up song as Grandmother placed another loaf in the oven, made with love that you can taste in every bite.
I needed to find my way back to that bread. I needed to grasp on to that kind of joy again.
Last week, I’d purchased far more winter citrus than Mr. Bagel, my two little Bagels, and myself could eat. I began candying fruit.
The sharp scent of lemons. The dry, acid burn of orange juice on my fingers. I cradled each fruit in my palm as I carved away its skin with a paring knife, careful not to include the spongy pith. I dropped each piece into bubbling water. I boiled out the bitterness. I saw the ghost of happiness in the steaming water.
Then I boiled the peels again in sugar water. Some call it simple syrup, but it is surprisingly complex. I spent hours in the kitchen, smelling these fruits, the sugar water condensing into thick nectar — but the citrus retained its fundamental flavor. I imagine a house built of bricks of oranges, sweet, sharp, orange stability; bursts of happiness in the foundation of my home.
Then I laid the peels out to dry for two days. For two nights, I could not sleep. The days are short and the nights are long.
Next, I made the dough. I’ve made bread dough countless times, but still, each loaf is a test of my will, and I forgot to study. I knead and muscle the dough into the counter, each movement an exertion and a prayer. It never gets easier. My grandmother could lift a hundred pounds at age ninety.
Then I chopped the candied fruit — hours of labor and chemical processes — into sticky, bite-sized pieces. I folded the morsels into the loaf, and my heart swelled as I left it to rise for another hour. Then I brushed it with butter and baked it for another hour. My temples throbbed with anticipation.
The smell as I pulled it from the oven was overwhelming. I cradled it in my arms. I tapped a sifter of powdered sugar gently across its back. Then I wrapped it in suffocating plastic wrap and abandoned it for two weeks. Like aging wine, the bread needed to find itself.
When Mr. Bagel’s mother came to visit, she asked what that thing on the counter was. I told her it was bread we couldn’t eat for two weeks. She left.
December loomed in my mind in a cloud of flour. I imagined the buttery, sweet slices, but over the long nights, the image crumbled and began falling through the cracks. I lost the forest for the trees and only realized when I had wandered too deep to ever escape, trapped in a hell of my own creation — long, cold winter nights.
Slow as syrup dripping through an hourglass, two weeks trickled by. I held the loaf in my arms again. The scent was not as sweet as I remembered. Already, I felt the warmth fading. The fruit bread, big as my torso as a child, was barely wider than my palm. Had I outgrown simple pleasures? Was the magic really gone? Or — keeping my pittance of hope alive — had I forgotten how to make it? Need I start the entire process over?
I quivered silently at the kitchen counter, gazing down at the shiny plastic covering the bread. I could not bring myself to unwrap it. What if it wasn’t the same? What if nothing would ever be the same? I shuddered as the present washed over me, as the wave crashed in the past. I could not walk back towards shore, nor walk into the surf. I could only let the water slam into me, over and over, grinding me down into silt.
Anyway, here’s the recipe:
- Buy stollen at the store.
- Throw it away.
- Attempt to Enjoy.