Comfort food. In American pop culture, we interpret this as: fatty, salty, sugary, bad for you. Something you shouldn’t have, but when you’ve had a bad day, well damn it, you’ve earned it. But what about actual comfort? What food makes you feel better when you have it? Not guilty, not stuffed, not drowsy, but — good?
Comfort food for me is bread. I’m a starch-driven machine even on my best days. Buckets of pasta. Chips. Pretzels. Almost literally endless quantities of popcorn. Good bread is the high-octane version of my simple carbohydrate primary fuel.
Good bread is fresh bread. I prefer it with texture, with rich scents, warm, with butter. I grew up in a household where my father was the (excellent) cook. My mother could technically feed us in his absence but it wasn’t pretty. However. She baked. The sticky feel of dough slowly turning into the smooth miracle of a shaped loaf is an experience so deep and early that only my hands remember it.
Good bread, while it is baking and for a while afterwards, fills your space with a smell that in itself is nourishing. Any yeasted bread will produce this smell but I am fond of using sesame oil during the last rise, when a sheen over the surface of the dough will keep it from drying and cracking as it rests before baking, and it adds a dimensionality to the fresh bread aroma that might be described as exotic or heady or but however you phrase it you will never want to stop smelling it.
Good bread is a baguette from a market vendor in Barcelona, crisp-shelled with a tender, chewy crumb, eaten in chunks with salami and a blood orange while you sit on the quay with your friend and look out at the busy port and feel drowsy and lucky and sunned.
Good bread is sandwich bread from the store stacked around thick slices of cheddar, eaten with grimy hands on top of a flat rock in the middle of your hike that’s taking longer than you thought. You’re saving the apple for later.
Good bread is the champagne bubbles of sourdough popping under your fingers as you work flour into the sponge.
Good bread is a slice from yesterday’s loaf, nutty and chewy, folded around a still-hot piece of bacon and taken like the sacrament as you walk to work in chilly pre-dawn light.
Comfort food. I love that phrase, which sounds like what a friend might bring to your house when you’re sick. Bread in particular comforts not just with taste and texture but with the act of its creation. It is no exaggeration when people describe kneading dough as “grounding”: you are gently reaching, again and again and again, through the medium of one of humanity’s oldest nourishing substances, with your hands, to the earth.