Lessons from the Bread

There is a spectacular science to baking bread. The basic formula is simple: flour + water + yeast + sugar = bread. It's the basis for everything from crusty ciabatta to soft sandwich bread, dimpled focaccia filled with herbs and butter to quick-rising hamburger buns. Somehow, miraculously, those four ingredients produce breads so different, you'd never know they were all cousins at heart.

In four years of baking our weekly sandwich loaf, and just about every other type of carb-y dough known to man, I've never bothered to acquaint myself with the mystery of the process. I'd find a recipe and follow it. I wouldn't tweak. I wouldn't wonder about how these ingredients came together to make that result.

  Photo by  Nikki Tran

Photo by Nikki Tran

I used to try harder, in the early days. Jacob and I had freshly returned from a trip to Europe, and our tastebuds were less than thrilled at coming home to American fare after being delighted by Italian olive oil and Austrian dumplings for three weeks. Bread and cheese seemed particularly lacking, like eating a cardboard-flavored sponge or chewing a slice of rubber that was a closer relative to plastic than to anything produced by a cow.

Making my own cheese seemed a bit out of reach for someone who had only recently stopped serving Hamburger Helper for every other meal, so I settled on bread. 

One week later, I was watching the UPS deliveryman drag 40 pounds of wheat berries up the steep cement stairs that curve toward our house (a trip he's made every few months since then). I tied a blue flowered apron around my neck, my newly pregnant belly not even making a bump in the fabric, and I poured a measuring cup filled with light brown, oblong wheat berries into the top of my new electric flour mill. 

The recipe I consulted was written for white flour, and I succeeded in making a dense brick that refused to rise. I baked it still sitting a quarter inch below the top of the loaf pan and ate every crumbly, bitter slice myself as peanut butter toast. I was proud of every crumb. 

I spent the next six months experimenting. I found a recipe made for wheat flour, and I hunted down additives like vital wheat gluten and citric acid (difficult to find because, the Whole Foods store clerk said, Dr. Oz had just advised women to put it on their face). I kneaded my dough by hand rather than in the mixer because I liked the feel of it, even though it made my hands ache. I jotted notes on scraps of paper until the recipe I had copied from Pinterest was so crinkled and scratched out, it was impossible for anyone but me to read. 

The bread got better but never great. And then I had the baby. 

Hadley cried anytime I set her down for the first four months of her life. She hated her baby swing, her car seat, her stroller, her bouncer, and at times, even the baby wrap I tucked her into. 

Baking bread turned into the worst chore of the week. With my newborn's screams in the background of every loaf I made, I started taking shortcuts. I tossed yeast into water without waiting for it to sponge, and I cut the kneading time in half (how much could it really matter, anyway?). I skipped the shaping and instead plopped the lump of dough unceremoniously into the loaf pan, then stuck the whole thing into a 170-degree oven in the hopes the warmth would make it rise faster. 

I wanted better payoff with less work. I lost sight of the process, and I didn't get it back for years. 

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

The Italians don't have better bread than we do because they rush through a set of instructions. They take their time. They find the best ingredients. They press their hands into the dough and respond to what it needs.

This is what I'm remembering this winter, largely with the help of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It was in this book I learned that my shortcuts were literally killing my bread. The very things that keep yeast happy and growing can also kill it dead in one fell swoop. 

Yeast needs warm water to activate, but not too hot. Yeast needs sugar to eat, but don't let it touch honey directly. The same goes for salt, which adds to the bread's flavor but has the potential do harm if you're not careful. And don't let the dough rise somewhere too hot! Warmth is good, but nothing more than what the glow of the oven light provides.

I read all this and immediately started applying it to myself instead of the bread, like the good English major I am. 

I am the yeast. I've been trying to give myself the ingredients necessary for an intentional life, but I take shortcuts in the process. I do more harm than good. My ambition is killing my creativity, not feeding it. Social media is causing me to burn out, not to rise in the warmth. I need more time to rise, more opportunities to be carefully shaped into what I'm meant to be.

In just six weeks of owning this book, I've gone from flinging together a haphazard dough in ten minutes to committing to a bread-baking process that begins at 10:00 a.m. and wraps up around 8:00 p.m. It includes making a sponge to get things started, kneading the dough in the KitchenAid for seven minutes at least, and giving the yeast time to work through three full rises plus a rest period. 

It's more work than it's ever been before, and yet, it no longer feels like a chore. Checking the dough is a restful reminder to be present to what's happening in my own home. Moving it from step to step is practical art in the middle of a long day. 

And, of course, the bread tastes better now than it ever has before.

Here's to hoping the lesson holds true for the rest of life as well.