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I pulled out today’s bread from the Dutch oven while Michael prepped his lunch for work. I showed it to him, and he laughed. “A smiley face.”

“Well, that’s not what I was going for,” I told my husband as I set it on top of the mixer to cool out of Ursula’s reach. (Our black lab is a terrible thief, and we have to devise creative ways to keep her from eating us out of house and home.) “I was trying to make my score marks artistic. See? If you turn it sideways, it looks more like a flower. A lily, maybe?”

“Nope. It’s a smiley face. Can’t unsee that now.”

I’ve always been the baker in the family, and now that I’ll be gone for a while, I’ll need to teach Michael how to bake for himself. I try to stay away from bread, but Michael likes his morning toast. I use a sourdough starter that Ellis, our youngest, left for me when he went to the West Coast. It keeps well in a wide mouth Mason jar with a coffee filter on top screwed on with a canning jar band. Sourdough starters need to breathe. I am pretty faithful about feeding it whenever I use it, with flour and whey saved from making Greek yogurt. I only make about one small loaf a week.

I cheat, by mixing up the dough in the bread machine. I put about a quarter cup of rolled oats (for sweetness) into a two-cup measure and then pour in another scoop of ground flax seed (to substitute some protein for the processed carbs). I’ll then top off the two-cup measure with whatever mix of bread flour, whole wheat and sometimes even plain white flour — whatever I happen to have on hand. A half teaspoon of salt will make it tasty, and a couple of tablespoons of butter for flavor and freshness. Then I’ll fill the same 2 cup measure halfway with sourdough starter, and then top it off with whey if I have it, water if I don’t. (Note to self — show Michael how to make the Greek yogurt, too, so he will always have a supply of whey for the sourdough.)

I quickly learned that sourdough needs more time to sufficiently rise, so I mix the dough in the evening and let it rest overnight. In the morning, assuming I remember, I’ll pop it into my special proofing oven — a small stoneware baking bowl that fits right inside my Dutch oven. When I forget it in the morning — what a mess! The dough over-rises and goes alcoholic. I can either bake it as is and have a dense, hard loaf that is hardly worth slicing, or fold it all back into the starter and begin again. I score the loaf with my sharpest knife to give it room to rise outside its skin, and in it goes, covered, for an hour at low heat — 100 degrees. Next, pull it out and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Our oldest, Chandra, taught me the trick of baking bread inside a Dutch oven. You want to pop the warmed dough straight into a hot oven. The heat takes it by surprise, and it rises fast, giving a nice crumb. When it has baked for 35 minutes, I pull off the lid and let it brown until the crust is crisp — about 10 minutes. If I’m in the mood, I’ll spritz it with water for the last bit — a trick an old baker showed me in my hippie days.

I try not to eat much bread, but hot bread is hard to resist, and I’ll slice just the crispy heel off and spread some butter on it. Sometimes I have another slice, too. This morning, Michael and I slice and slice, until the smiley face is winking, and we have eaten our fill.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” I say, chewing.

“Nah,” says my husband, licking melted butter off his hand. “Just leave me your recipe for the bread.”

Bake in Beauty; Savor Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican and at letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.