Friday, April 3, 2020

Science and math in the kitchen

Sage and Ian Bizier making "real bread"
By Briana Bizier

The past few weeks have been full of new experiences for many of us. Parents in the Windham and Raymond area found themselves at home with their children after all RSU14 schools closed due to concerns about spreading the COVID-19 virus. Many of us also had a sudden crash-course in telecommuting as we attempted to work from home. And many local grocery stores’ shelves were shockingly empty. For me, this meant I came home from the store last week without bread for the first time in my life.

I’d made two loaves of molasses oatmeal bread over the weekend, but my two little food critics kept asking for “real bread.” So, on Monday I pulled out my twenty-year-old copy of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook and found a recipe for basic white bread. Then I called my children into the kitchen to help.

Like many other parents across the world, I spent last week trying to carefully curate an enriching educational experience for my two children while my husband and I simultaneously struggled to adjust to working from home. And, like many other parents across the world, I’ve discovered that it’s actually impossible to serve as a replacement kindergarten and fourth-grade teacher. The Bizier family has learned many things over the past week, and one of our most humbling lessons has been how incredibly valuable elementary school teachers truly are.

Yet we’ve also discovered that education can take many forms. As I called the children into our sunny kitchen to make bread together, I realized how much science and math underlies even the simplest recipe. When we added a packet of yeast to warm water and watched for bubbles, I asked if my children knew yeast was alive.

“Whoa,” said my five-year-old Ian, staring at the yeast with newfound interest. “You mean those are animals?”

A quick Google search while the yeast proofed reveled that yeast are actually fungi, in the same broad category as mushrooms and mold. The yeast we use for baking bread eats sugar and then produces carbon dioxide gas, which is then trapped as tiny bubbles in the bread dough, making the bread rise.

“That is pretty cool,” my nine-year-old daughter Sage admitted.

Once the yeast and warm water mixture had begun to bubble in its small bowl, we started mixing the dough. I read the recipe aloud while Sage measured the flour, sugar, and salt into a bowl and Ian mixed the ingredients. When she couldn’t find a measuring cup for three cups of flour, Sage decided to add six half-cups of flour instead, proving once and for all that an understanding of fractions is an important life skill. Ian helped me count out tablespoons of sugar, and the kids argued over who would be the first to knead the dough. They ended up kneading the dough together, although somehow that still wasn’t enough to stop the argument.

An hour later, I called the children back into the kitchen to witness how big the bread dough had grown through the yeast’s enthusiastic sugar consumption.

“The yeast did all that?” Sage asked as she pressed the elastic surface of the newly-risen bread dough.

“Well, with a little help from you kids,” I answered.

As we moved the dough into loaf pans to rise once again under a damp tea towel, I thought about the crash course we’d just had in practical math, science, and culinary arts. It wasn’t the lesson I’d designed for the day, but it was still a learning experience. And, as we all adjust to the current reality of living during the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s remember that educational opportunities come in all forms.

If you have older children, my husband Dr. Bizier, the Honors and Advanced Placement chemistry teacher at Windham High School, has a website featuring “Chemistry of Cooking” projects completed by his students. Your student will need an RSU14 email address to log in to the site, where they can peruse PowerPoint presentations about everything from the chemistry of chocolate chip cookies to how to make the perfect Reuben sandwich. You can find the website here:

In case you’d like to try making “real” white bread yourself, here’s the recipe from “Fanny Farmer”:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup hot milk
1 cup hot water
1 package dry yeast
6 cups of white flour, approximately

Mix the oil or butter, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Add the hot milk and hot water, then let cool until lukewarm. In a small bowl or cup, mix the package of yeast and 1/4 cup warm water and let stand for 5 minutes to dissolve. Add the dissolved yeast and 3 cups of flour to the butter, water, and milk mixture; beat until well blended. Add another 2 cups of flour, mix, and turn onto a lightly floured board. Knead for a minute or two, then let rest for 10 minutes. Adding just enough of the remaining flour so the dough is not sticky, resume kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic (no need to fight, there’s plenty of dough to go around). Put the dough in a large, greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in bulk. Gently punch down and shape into two loaves. Place in greased loaf pans, cover, and let rise again until doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 425. Bake bread for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 and bake for 30 minutes more. Remove from pans and cool on a rack.

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