Recently I began baking bread and I can’t really explain why. I have always wanted to bake bread and it seemed something very primal, simple and pure. So I started baking bread, focaccia to be precise.
After that, I decided I could tackle making loaves of white bread for toasting and sandwiches. How hard could that be? I mean the Amish bake like crazy without fancy technology, and bread helped our pioneering forebears survive their Westward expansion and brutal winters. If they could do it, well… you get the idea.
Baking bread can be intimidating. The first loaf came out terrible, the second not so much better. Plenty of recipes talk about the right way to bake bread, but few write about what goes wrong and how to fix it. Finally, I solved the problem and since then have been baking like the aforementioned Amish folk.
As a male, when I confess my love of bread baking sometimes I will get a funny sort of, “Really?” look. In those moments I feel the need to defend bread making because, in all honesty it’s taught me a few things.
I find the whole activity a relaxing and fulfilling practice from which I have learned the following lessons.
Faith. You have to trust the yeast. Some bread recipes call for you to “proof” the yeast to see that it is alive. You mix yeast with warm water and sugar and it will bubble after a while. But I try to avoid this. I believe in the yeast. I believe it will do its job. Who am I to second guess this miracle of nature? On the advice of several bread blogs, I sometimes don’t even dissolve the yeast in water first, I just dump everything together. It works.
Patience. It takes 15 -20 minutes to mix all the ridiculously simple ingredients together. Then it takes about the same to knead the dough (each recipe’s time varies). Then you let it rise for a least an hour. Next you punch the dough down before rolling, folding and placing in a loaf pan. Next, let it rise another hour. Lost yet? Bottom line is that you’re in the whole thing for at least 2-3 hours not counting baking time. Some recipes less, some more if a double rise is called for.
Presence. Either way, single rise or double rise, once you’re in you’re in. For the most part you are giving more time than labor, but the bread owns you until it is done, baked and cooling gently in its pan. You must attend to it. Walk away, forget, leave it too long and you can have potential mess on your hand.
Togetherness. There is a reason that at the heart of every major religion is bread. It brings us together. Everyone smells it baking. With the scent filling a home it feeds the desire to eat and share. At the ready the loaf does not stand much of a chance. There must always be a test slice to see if all turned out well. One slice leads to two, two to three and very soon half the loaf is gone and a stick of butter as well. When we break bread we come together in silent enjoyment of a made thing. This occurrence may not always happen at fast food drive throughs, or ring ready from our microwave ovens.
In his short story, A Small Good Thing, Ray Carver writes a confrontation between a grieving couple and a local baker. The baker had been calling the couple’s home in the days following their son’s birthday because they failed to pick up a cake they had ordered. Unknown to the baker was the fact that their son had just died days earlier after being hit by a car while he was crossing the street on the way home from school.
In a rage they drive to his bakery, closed for the day, and unleash on him. He apologizes. So many people order cakes, he explains, and then never pick them up. He asks them to forgive his insensitivity over the rejection of his time and talent. He has just taken fresh rolls from the oven. He offers them some. They accept. He pours them coffee and the three eat rolls and drink coffee in the darkening store and the baker says that eating is “a small good thing in times like these.”
Bread is faith, patience, presence and togetherness. I hope soon that with the end of this most contentious season that bread will be baked, broken, and shared. In that way we will be fed, restored, made whole. That is indeed a good thing, if not a small one.