IN MID-NOVEMBER 1979, Sigrid Cerf, an Annandale housewife, saw a picture of a starving Cambodian child on the cover of Time magazine. Reading that 2 1/4 million Cambodians faced starvation, she resolved to do something to express her sympathy for their plight.
Her options were limited; she was homebound with two sons, one only 10 months old, and further isolated by deafness. But drawing from childhood memories of her mother and grandmother baking in a warm kitchen on cold days, she was determined to raise money for Cambodian relief by selling homemade bread.
Cerf began to work in her tiny U-shaped kitchen, which, while convenient for preparing family meals, is hardly the space needed to turn out 70 to 80 loaves of bread a day. Yet the kitchen opens to the dining area and the family room beyond, making it possible for her to work while the baby slept or played nearby. And accommodations were possible: While Cerf mixed dough, dinner could simmer in a crockery cooker in the bathroom.
Soon television publicity brought so many orders she couldn't keep up and, even more than space, she wanted extra hands to knead dough. When word went out that she needed help, "the whole community of Camelot the Annandale subdivision where the Cerfs live was at my door," she says.
Neighbors kneaded dough, chopped apples, grated cheese, bagged, labeled and delivered bread. A woman confined to a wheelchair took telephone orders. The man next door took care of the Cerfs' yard to allow her computer-scientist husband, Vint, more time to help. The proprietor of Health Way, a neighborhood health food store, helped them to buy ingredients wholesale. "After people meet Sigrid they are transformed by the experience," Vint Cerf says.
The Rev. Larry Tingle, then minister of nearby Emmanuel United Methodist Church, which the Cerfs later joined, offered to sell loaves after Sunday services. "Everyone who came to church either bought bread or took some to sell," says Sigrid Cerf. "It was a heartwarming community project at a time when people felt helpless about the situation in Cambodia.
"It was the nicest Christmas I ever had. My husband's gift of time was more valuable than gifts under the Christmas tree."
Working from 8 in the morning until midnight she lost 15 pounds. But she baked 2,500 loaves of bread and netted about $2,500, which she gave to international agencies for Cambodian relief.
Unexpectedly, after she was interviewed for a Voice of America broadcast to Southeast Asia, letters arrived from Cambodia. The letters were short, dictated to someone who could write in English, and expressed appreciation for what she was doing. "They were the most dignified letters I've ever read; straight-from-the-heart letters," she calls them, marveling that "we can communicate our love so clearly and quickly and get responses."
Since 1979, each November and December Cerf's kitchen again becomes a bakery. Her husband transports about 5,000 pounds of flour and other ingredients to the house. Making two-pound loaves of honey-graham, cheese and apple-cinnamon bread, and coffee cake, she produces about 2,500 baked items each season. By the end of this year, her husband estimates the grand total will be more than 10,000. (During the rest of the year she makes another 500 items to fill special orders.) She could make more than this, but her turnout is limited to 10 loaves an hour -- all she can bake in her standard two-oven wall unit.
A tall, attractive woman with wavy auburn hair and gray-green eyes, dressed in tweed skirt and turtleneck, Cerf welcomes a visitor with warmth to her house bordered by woods and a stream. Almost totally deaf since age 3 when the fever of spinal meningitis destroyed her normal hearing, she communicates with apparent ease. She wears a hearing aid with a powerful amplifier that enables her to hear a telephone or doorbell, and she reads lips. She speaks with only a slightly unusual inflection which, her husband says, causes some people to think that, since her name is Sigrid, she is probably Swedish. (She was born in Kansas and is of Swedish descent.)
The house is redolent of rising dough, fermenting this year in a stainless steel bowl large enough to fill two encircling arms. The bowl fits an 800-pound kneading machine standing in the basement. Last year Skip Thacker, a fellow-member of their church, found the machine, minus a motor, behind a barn in West Virginia and spent Christmas week taking it apart and installing a new motor. With the kneading machine Sigrid Cerf is able to manage with far less assistance than she had to have the first year, though neighbors still come by to chop apples or deliver bread, and churches help to sell it.
She starts her bread with a sponge consisting of all the liquid and at least half the flour needed for a batch. "It's like a pancake batter loaded with bubbles," she says. The sponge is left to ferment overnight. "The long fermentation process allows the yeast to properly age the flour for a really fine flavor. My bread takes 11 to 12 hours from start to finish."
The recipes she has developed incorporate the essential features of the "Cornell formula," which was devised at Cornell University in the 1930s to improve the nutritional qualities of bread. Her bread has a shelf-life of two weeks. She says this is mainly because she always adds potatoes -- "probably the world's greatest natural preserver of moisture in bread." Other natural hydroscopic (water retaining) ingredients are honey and eggs.
She is shocked that some people refrigerate bread because she finds this causes bread flavor to deteriorate. However, she thinks freezing is all right because the fresh flavor isn't lost.
Most of the money Cerf has earned has gone through the United Methodist Committee on Relief to World Hunger, the rest to Annandale Christian Community Action. This year, for the first time, she is giving bread to Washington churches for direct distribution to needy persons.
And she has passed along two of her recipes for those who want to make their own. CORNELL CHEESE BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 1 package active dry yeast 1 tablespoon granulated sugar 2 cups warm potato water, left from cooking potato 1 medium potato, cooked and mashed 6 to 7 cups bread flour 1 1/2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce 3 tablespoons wheat germ 1/2 cup soy flour 3/4 cup skim milk powder 1 1/2 tablespoons salt 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/3 cup each of the following three cheeses: coarsely grated parmesan, grated gruyere, and grated swiss; or grated parmesan only
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/4 cup of the warm potato water in a large bowl and allow to proof for five minutes. Add remaining 1 3/4 cups potato water, mashed potato and 3 cups of the flour, and beat this mixture at least 100 strokes by hand or for 3 minutes with an electric mixer. Let mixture stand at least an hour to form a bubbly "sponge" mass.*
Stir down sponge dough, and add hot pepper sauce, wheat germ, soy flour, skim milk powder, salt and vegetable oil, and then add remaining flour gradually until the dough is mixed well enough to turn out onto a heavily floured board. Knead for about 6 minutes** until dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough into a lightly oiled large plastic bag and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down the dough, and lightly knead in the cheeses. Let dough rest 10 minutes under the plastic bag. Shape into two loaves and place in two oiled or vegetable-cooking sprayed 8-by-4-by-2-inch pans. Cover with the plastic bag, and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 1 hour. Line lowest shelf of oven with aluminum foil and fill it with about a 1/16-inch layer of water. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Just before placing pans in oven, spray both oven and bread generously with water, to create steam which will allow bread to rise high in the pans before a crust is formed. Spray inside of oven a couple of times during the first 10 minutes of baking.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cover with foil if they brown too quickly. Brush loaves with melted butter.
*This sponge may be left to rest at a temperature in the lower 70's for as long as 8 hours. If doing so, reduce yeast to 1/2 package, and add salt to the sponge to slow down the fermentation process.
**Bread flour sold in most supermarkets has a higher gluten content than do all-purpose flours. It normally requires at least 10 minutes of kneading to develop its full elasticity. Prior mixing as well as making a sponge helps the gluten to develop as much as possible without the kneading time required for bread that is mixed from dough made all at one time. Thus an overnight sponge dough, after the addition of the other ingredients, needs only a couple of minutes of actual kneading time. CORNELL HONEY-GRAHAM BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 1 1/4 cups warm potato water 1 package active dry yeast 3 cups bread flour 1/4 cup molasses 9 tablespoons honey 1 cup finely chopped sprouted wheat 1/2 cup cracked wheat or bulgur that has been cooked in 1 1/2 cups water for 15 minutes, and cooled 3 cups whole-wheat flour 1/2 cup soy flour 3/4 cup skim milk powder 3 tablespoons wheat germ 2 teaspoons salt 4 tablespoons salad oil 2 eggs Glaze ingredients: 1/4 cup hot water 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 tablespoon butter Additional bread flour for kneading
Proof yeast in warm potato water and honey, and let stand for 5 minutes. Add bread flour and molasses, and beat this mixture at least 100 strokes by hand or for 3 minutes with an electric mixer. Let mixture stand at least an hour to form a sponge mass that is bubbly.
Stir sponge down and mix in all other ingredients in the order listed. Stir well, then turn out onto a heavily floured board. Knead for about 8 minutes (whole-wheat bread requires more kneading time, and will be somewhat sticky even when the dough is smooth and elastic).
Place the dough into a lightly oiled, large plastic bag, and let rise in a warm place, until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down the dough, and lightly knead for a minute. Let dough rest 10 minutes under the plastic bag. Shape into two loaves and place in two well-oiled 8-by-4-by-2-inch pans; cover with the plastic bag and let rise in a warm spot until almost doubled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Line lower shelf of oven with foil and fill it with a 1/16-inch bed of water. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Then just before placing pans in oven, spray both oven and bread generously with water, which will allow bread to rise high in the pans before a crust is formed. Spray inside of oven a couple of times in the first 10 minutes of baking time.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 50 minutes, or until loaves sound hollow when the bottom of the bread is tapped. This bread browns quickly, so protect the top with additional foil. After removing bread from the oven, brush the loaves on all surfaces with warm glaze.