ROSE VALLEY — In one day last week, fourth- and fifth-graders at Rose Valley Elementary had already attended a Southwest Washington Symphony concert and hosted their grandparents at lunch.
Still, they were rapt as they topped off their Thursday with yet another special event.
What kept them glued to the lesson?
For an hour, Paula Gray of King Arthur's Flour showed more than 40 children, step by step, how to bake a loaf of bread — or use the same amount of dough to make a pizza crust, pretzels or cinnamon rolls.
In a lively, commanding style that hinted at Gray's former career as a teacher, she told the students, "We're going to do three things today: learn, bake and share."
From "fluffing" and measuring flour to proofing yeast, from mixing and kneading dough to braiding loaves, the children watched intently as a few simple ingredients became bread.
Gray had prepared batches of dough in advance so she'd have fully risen dough and two golden baked loaves to whisk out and show the kids.
Afterward, they took home their own sacks of free ingredients, enough to make two loaves — one for their families and the second loaf for a neighbor or the Longview homeless shelter.
Gray, who lives in Norwich, Vt., is one of three instructors from King Arthur's Flour who travel the country, teaching 42,000 students a year how to make a loaf of bread.
Before her audience filled the music room at Rose Valley, Gray set up her staging area, tilted a video screen that would show what was happening on the work table and prepped two student helpers: Mia King, 10; and Brianna McWain, 9.
The instructor tucked lessons into her workshop as seamlessly as she folded under the ends of braided dough.
Following her guidance, Brianna and Mia worked swiftly and quietly, and managed all the tasks Gray gave them.
"It takes three and a half hours to make bread, so you have to really think ahead," the instructor told the children. "This is called 'time management': how long something takes for you to do it."
Reading a recipe (or other directions, she implied), means "you'll have everything you need. You don't want to be half way through and say, 'Oh no! I don't have any oil!' "
Other points Gray delivered with her smooth patter and flashing smile:
• Wash those hands. "You don't want anything to touch your food except your clean hands."
• Learn how food works. Salt perks up the flavor of bread and helps it turn golden brown. Oil "keeps bread soft and squishy, and keeps it fresh."
• Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. When Gray showed the kids a packet of yeast, she said, "Right now it's dormant. Does anyone know what that means?"
After two good guesses, a boy said, "asleep." "Good! Perfect answer," Gray said.
Yeast is a living thing, she explained, "so it needs water, a safe place to live, and food — sugar."
She talked about soda, how it fizzes, and led the kids to carbonation, then carbon dioxide ... and the bubbles in the bread mixture as she added flour.
"See those bubbles? That means your dough is ready to rock. It's happy, it's active, it's ready to go."
Later, she said, "What word means to make a really good guess?"
"ESTIMATE!" came a chorus of right answers.
And when Gray taught the two helpers how — and why — to spin a pizza disc in the air, she explained "centrifugal force."
• Children respond when we talk up to them, not down. The instructor taught the difference between a dry measure and a liquid one. She told the kids that it was so cool, how yeast absorbs sugar into its cell walls and they get bigger.
As Brianna shaped a loaf, Gray said, "Thatta girl. See how careful she is? I like the way she handles the dough so carefully."
As Mia practiced spinning the pizza round in the air, the kids would call out "One! Two! Three!" Until Avenir Ismagolov took over: "Odin! Dva! Tri!"
And Gray was delighted with the addition of a little Russian.
• Science pulses through daily life. Gray peppered her workshop with praise for "fabulous fractions" and math and science, "my two favorite subjects in the world."
When she instructed the kids in setting the dough aside to rise, she said, "I want you to use your science eyes now. How will you tell when this is 'doubled in size?' "
Five days after the workshop, it was evident that Gray's lessons had hit home.
Brayden Saavedra, 10, gave the instructor and the workshop a "10."
"First of all, it was very special that she was able to come all the way from Vermont, and we were able to make the bread," Brayden said. "She showed us a lot of different things we could make ...
"She did an excellent job, and she used a lot of scientific words. She told us about yeast, and it was kind of like telling a story. It's alive, and feeds on the cells. ... She made sure we knew exactly what do to, mixing it all, how hard it was to stir, and how to knead it, and how it gets bigger. It was kind of cool that it rised up."
"We got a bunch of ideas for turning bread into a snack or a breakfast. We had ideas to work with and we could help."
BASIC BREAD RECIPE
Makes 2 loaves (Alert!!! This recipe takes about 3 1/2 hours to make.)
- 2 cups warm water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 packet Red Star Active Dry Yeast
- 2 cups King Arthur 100% Organic White Whole Wheat Flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
In a large bowl, combine warm water, sugar, yeast and 2 cups King Arthur 100% White Whole Wheat Flour. Cover mixture with a clean towel and let stand 10 minutes until bubbly.
Stir in salt and vegetable oil.
Stir in King Arthur All-Purpose Flour, 1 cup at a time. When the dough holds together and most of the flour is mixed in, plop dough out onto a clean, floured surface.
Knead the dough. Sprinkle your hands or the work surface with just enough flour to prevent sticking. Use your dough scraper, too. After 5 minutes, take a break and let the dough rest.
Scrape out the mixing bowl, and smear a little oil all around the inside.
Knead the dough for a few more minutes. (When you lightly press the dough with your fingertips, it should bounce right back.) Put the dough into the oiled bowl, flip the dough once, and cover with plastic wrap and a clean towel.
Put the dough in a warm place to rise until double in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Gently deflate the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Divide the dough in half and form into desired shapes.
Grease a baking sheet; put your loaves on it. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and a clean towel and let the dough rise again for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Carefully remove plastic wrap and slash the tops of the loaves or baguettes with a sharp knife. Bake the loaves for about 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Cool the bread on a rack. Enjoy!
— King Arthur Flour, Life Skills Bread Baking Program