Subarctic Sessions: In Praise of Winter Baking

December is a perfect time to indulge my love of baking. Not only will people eat more – they’re in a festive spirit – but the cold kitchen floor, impossible to warm when it’s minus 40 out, becomes more bearable if the oven’s on all afternoon.

As the sun shows itself less each day, I’ve learned that many friends are open to trading baked goods for other things. Shortbread for shovelling the driveway, et cetera.

The heat-and-oven therapy began a few weeks back when I was in a post-Thanksgiving slump of homesickness for my extended family.

There was a special type of cinnamon bread Mom used to bake, one loaf only, when she made her 8-10 regular loaves each Friday (yes, we were lucky). Of course, I don’t have the recipe at hand.

I phoned, but she wasn’t home. So I turned to another great gatherer of recipes – the internet.

An hour later, there I was with my hands all floured up.

If you’ve never baked bread, or you’ve converted to using a bread machine and forgotten how it feels to have your fingers sticky with dough, let me inform – or remind you – how sensuous it is.

When the dough is firm enough to take from the mixing bowl, you fold it over and over onto itself, into itself, on the counter top. The repeated action drains the stress from your shoulders and hands.

When you look up, the crescent moon is rising against that unique shade of deep blue that is the Yukon winter sky.

When your fingers test the dough for elasticity, it’s a moment of time travel. Learned to do that when I was 11, forgot about it when I was 15, came back to it in my 30s.

The smoothness, the resistance of the dough, promises a rich reward in a short amount of time. Not years or weeks, the way you wait for good results from a relationship or a job. Tasty results, guaranteed in a couple of hours.

Roll the dough with a cobalt-blue glass bottle, brought to a year-ago dinner party by a friend who collects blue and purple glass objects. He’s so committed to those colours that he bottles his home-made wine in them when he has enough.

I should have given the bottle back. But I kept it after the meal, after the clean-up, my boyfriend washing the mounds of plates, me nudging the cat to his dish for a leftover snip of chicken skin.

I kept it because it was beautiful, and because something in me knew I needed to keep setting up the then-new-to-us kitchen, to keep building connections to my new community.

A year later, the blue bottle revealed its true identity: rolling pin. Bread. Missing Mom. Cinnamon loaf. Go.

On the weekend I was in another wooden house, thin walls and hot stoves, one electric stove in the kitchen to slow-roast a leg of lamb, one wood-eating stove in the studio. A feast because friends of friends are visiting from Montreal, and one of the linking friends lives here and is hosting.

The moose meat appetizer: marinated in garlic and ginger with plenty of black pepper. The bread: garlic, with the spices spiralled into the dough’s centre.

The deals by the end of the night: bread for moose sirloin with one friend; bread for biscotti with another.

It’s a winter thing, a way of insisting on sunlight-strength warmth even without the star showing its face. I recommend it to anyone.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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