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Ruth Bass: Waiting on that illusive January thaw? Try kneading bread instead

Hands kneading dough

Like chopping a coating of thick driveway ice with a garden edging tool, kneading dough — and pounding it into submission — can be a cathartic exercise in the dead of winter.

RICHMOND — It’s ice and bread. No, not ice on bread. But ice inspiring the making of bread.

Outside, a quarter-inch of ice has stubbornly covered the driveway for at least two weeks now. It’s hard to even remember what day the big ice storm hit, glazing everything thicker than Dunkin’ coats a doughnut.

Dogged efforts by the hero who plows here have made the driveway just fine for the car, which is rarely challenged by anything, and for the human walking to the mailbox and Eagle tube. With Yak-Traks in place.

But no amount of dogged works for the doggie. His bouncing enthusiasm for the outdoors would certainly end up with me in a snowbank or, worse, taking an unwanted slide to the ground. And the nimble pooch scampering off.

So, we eschew the driveway hazard and tootle near the house until one of his feet freezes, and he starts to hobble on three legs. When, at minus 3 degrees, all four froze at once, he was a bewildered dog. Ice is not nice, nor are single digit temperatures. But it is the Berkshires, and the traditional January thaw (supposed to happen about now) is elusive.

Originally considered folklore, the thaw is recognized scientifically. In a story from the Cornell Chronicle, experts say, “The thaw is classified as a phenomenon known as a singularity, which refers to a reoccurring anomalous departure of temperature from its normal seasonal value, on or near a particular date.”

The article immediately follows that gobbledygook with: “In other words, the weather has become unseasonable at a specific time.” And, they say, that time often is right about now. Really? Logically (or irrationally), it’s time to bake bread.

Two weeks ago, it was a pumpernickel mix purchased from the many temptations in the King Arthur Baking Co. store in Norwich, Vt. Last week, it was time for my mother’s recipe box and her classic oatmeal bread. When the aroma of two loaves baking wafts through the house, thoughts of ice disappear.

From the time we were little kids in Amherst until late in her life, my mother (Hilda) made that bread. And when the aroma reached my brother and me, we’d go on the watch for when the loaves were done.

Then we’d appear and beg for a warm slice with butter. She always protested, saying the bread should cool before you cut it. We always won.

When we were first married, Hilda and my father came to our Interlaken shack for Sunday dinner, and she brought a loaf. The bread was a hit with my husband, and I was relieved that neither of my parents made any negative cracks about the fact that we were living in a converted chicken house with a concrete floor in the living room.

Oatmeal bread came to the house in Richmond as well, and then, one day, she arrived empty-handed.

“No bread?” my husband said. “Where’s the bread?”

He had no idea that my mother would go home and brood for days over what most would consider a humorous and innocuous question. She’d feel she’d been found wanting as a new-to-this-man mother-in-law. The next time she came, she opened the door part way, proffered a loaf of oatmeal bread and asked, “Can I come in?”

Attacking the thick ice with the garden edging tool proves a somewhat satisfactory way to relieve no-thaw stress. Even better is dumping out the sticky mess of flour, milk and molasses and pounding it into submission.

And with Hilda’s loaf, you get to do it three times, filling a wintry afternoon with bread rising, kneading, rising, kneading, rising, kneading — baking. Along the way, stress melts, and maybe the ice will.

My kids used to ask for that warm slice, too. And I resisted because Hilda said you should. And then gave in.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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