It was bread day in third grade and I was on duty as parent volunteer with four eager 8-year-olds in my group. We were handed a recipe and a large, heavy-duty plastic zipper bag. The ingredients for our task sat on tables at the front of the room. They were of the regular sort: flour, sugar, water, oil and yeast. Our instructions advised us to mix them in the bag and go home with bread at the end of the day. Easy enough. Although I didn't want to admit it, I stood on a leavened playing field with my young bread-making apprentices. Oh, I'm handy enough when it comes to flour, sugar, water and oil. It was the yeast that had me deflated. Working with live (hungry) organisms in the kitchen tends to frazzle my nerves. (I'm talking about the yeast here, not the kids.) I could go into detail about my bread-making fiasco of 1997, but let's just say yeast and I don't mix well. At least we didn't. Until bread day in my son's third grade class. My young bakers scooped, poured and tossed the ingredients into the plastic bag. After checking once, twice and three times to ensure the seal was sealed we were ready for the fun part: kneading the dough. In third grade terms this involves punching, poking, prodding and jabbing at the dough through the plastic with 8-year-old fingers. Voracious is an understatement of the kneading capabilities of third graders. Some of us were rather violent in our interpretation of kneading. I am proud to say my team of bakers did not puncture our bag. Other groups were not so fortunate. I'd never witnessed aggressive kneading before and hoped our yeast would survive. In my experience, yeast can be temperamental. I didn't want to be the one to explain to my eager third graders that we'd "killed" our yeast. Never fear. We must have had a tough lot because our bread rose just like the label promised. My son thought it tasted better than cotton candy. I was impressed. And inspired. So I did the unthinkable. I went to the grocery store and bought some yeast. It was an optimistic (albeit weak) moment. Maybe my memories from 1997 were flawed. Certainly I had the skills to equal the bread-making prowess of a bunch of third graders. I stirred the ingredients together and the finished product was enough to give anyone dough-envy. It was beautiful. It smelled good (sort of like unbaked bread). It didn't stick to my fingers and rolled into a perfect bready dough ball. The confidence swelled within me as I separated my handiwork into golf ball-sized pieces, placed them on a baking sheet, covered them with a clean towel and left them on the warm radiator to rise. I checked back in 10 minutes. No action. Twenty minutes later still no rising or enlargement of my buns. After two hours, I threw the dough balls away. I was down, but never beaten. I took another look at my yeast package. It's important to read labels. Make a note of that for yourself. My recipe called for quick-rising yeast. I'd bought the regular variety. Back to the store I went optimism spewing from me like multiplication facts from a third grader. All I needed was the right yeast and this bread thing would be a piece of cake. Once home, I stirred everything together again and created nothing short of Pice dough rsistance. One thing was for sure: I had the dough thing down pat. The rising of the dough, however, was not so triumphant. I was beginning to understand the true meaning of desperate housewife. My third "loaf," while edible, baked up heavy as a fruitcake. I called it progress and willed myself to gear up for a fourth attempt. I will not let this bread thing break me although I must admit my confidence is not as light and airy as it once was. I'm cultivating a plan for mastering the yeast. The next time I "make bread" I think I'll invite my son to help. Because when it comes to the science of yeast, I now know one thing for sure: I am definitely not smarter than a third grader.
Jill Pertler, award-winning syndicated columnist and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication." is collecting fans on Facebook on her Slices of Life page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit her website at marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com/.