Bread for the Soul

This column was the featured column on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality forum on March 12, 2007.

During Lent this year, I’ve decided to learn how to make bread.

Although I’ve always been comfortable in the kitchen, good bread is something that continues to elude me, and I suspect this is because I have always lacked the kind of patience required to allow the dough to rise without interfering with the work of the yeast.

This is a problem that goes beyond bread making. Like most modern Americans, I am uncomfortable relinquishing control of my life. I am constantly wired, seamlessly connected, vertically integrated, and plugged in without respite. I don’t take enough time to sit quietly by while the yeast of life rises, working magic in the world around me. My hope was that making bread during Lent would provide an object lesson that would help me to trust the Spirit to lead and sustain me through the parts of life over which I have no control.

I started my bread making journey by picking up a bread cook book by Father Dominic Garramone, OSB (it turns out that a lot of monks and mystics bake bread). Impatient to create wonderful loaves, I started by trying to make the most interesting and complicated looking bread in the book. Thanks to my inexperience, the bread ended up being denser than a bagel and uglier than mud.

Humbled, I went to the beginning of the book and cooked the easiest white bread recipe I could find. It took a few tries, but now I’m confident enough in my boring white bread that I’ve made it for use on my church’s communion table. It’s not bad, but my yearning is for something a little bit more satisfying.

The bread I’m trying to perfect has the kind of crust and crumb that makes you want to wear a beret and smoke Gauloise cigarettes. It makes you want to spend a year in Provence, pondering life in all of its angst-ridden complexities while swilling Chateauneuf de Pape and painting impressionists landscapes of lavender fields in bloom. I’m in search of bread that makes you want to ask, with a slightly protruding lower lip, “Oú est la fromage bleu?” but it can’t be too French because I’m from Northern California; to my palette, any bread worth its yeast must be made with sourdough. The bread I’m trying bake, my bread, the bread that reflects the longings of my soul, must be, at the same time, domestic and exotic: San Francisco goes to Avignon.

I’m still a long way from achieving my goal, but each time I bake a batch of bread I get a little bit closer to my elusive loaf. I’m currently using sourdough made from wild yeast gathered on my back patio (I, who seldom have caught a live fish, somehow managed to capture and nurture a colony of microscopic organisms). I’m reading and learning about methods for bread making that utilize a slow rising technique to produce bigger bubbles in the crumb. My last batch took three days to make.

As I wait for the dough to rise, I’m learning that it’s OK to be slow, OK to make mistakes, OK to let the yeast work on its own. I’m figuring out that sometimes a person must be humble enough to follow the easiest of directions with unwavering faithfulness, and sometimes the same person must experiment a bit, using the recipe like a guide post on a journey of self-discovery.

These lessons migrate easily from bread making to life. The Spirit moves in us like yeast, causing us to grow, bringing flavor and beauty to our lives. Baking bread this Lent has helped me to relax my controlling grasp of life and let the Spirit work without my interference.

And maybe, someday, I’ll eat that long awaited loaf.

11 thoughts on “Bread for the Soul

  1. You should try the “no knead” bread featured in the New York Times a few months back. It really doesn’t require kneading, just a LONG wait time. Google “no knead bread” and you’ll find the recipe. Since even I was able to produce a very palatable loaf, it can be considered fool-proof.

  2. I liked your analogy.
    Doing something that one doesn’t normally do can be risky because the outcome isn’t known. With bread it can always be thrown away. When it might affect your life…that’s different.
    I went to a mediation session at the small community Unitarian church in our town led by a layman catholic. Didn’t know what to expect and since I don’t go to that church was uncomfortable.
    It was a good experience and when time is available will go back. Doing something out of ones comfort zone can be a rewarding experience.

  3. I have been baking bread too… it truly is a spiritual activity, no?

    Try this if you get a chance… New England Brown Bread. I saw it in the bakery in Harvard Square last week, and decided to give it a try because it looked so interesting. The best part about it is the preparation (although it is VERY fulfilling in its own way). It’s a rye-blend molasses bread, and you make it by steam-baking the bread in a coffee can. It comes out shaped like a cylinder, and it makes an amazingly good breakfast.

    Enjoy your quest for the perfect bread, though. It is hard to do, but when you get it right it is always worth the effort.

  4. Like the first person who wrote, you may want to consider the no knead bread that has become ever so popular on the Internet. Since I am from the SF area, I too prefer breads made with sourdough. I ‘perfected’ the no knead bread recipe by adding sourdough that I hav nurtured for over 11 years. In a nutshell, measure into a large bowl 3 cups of bread flour, 1/4 tsp instant yeast, 2 1/2 tsps salt. Stir with a wisk then add 1 1/4 cup room temperature water and 1 cup of sourdough. Mix with spatula or wooden spoon until dough looks shaggy. Cover bowl with plastic. Let rest in bowl for 16 hours. The dough will rise and have bubbles on top. Coat a plastic cutting board with rice flour (or all purpose flour), then dump the dough onto the cutting board. Fold it in thirds like a letter, then fold it over again. The dough will be soggy and wet. Don’t worry – it is supposed to be that way. Cover dough with a cloth. Let proof for 2 more hours. One hour before bread is done proofing place a 4 or 5 quart dutch oven with lid in oven and prehat to 450 degrees. After the two hour proof, remove the very hot dutch oven from the oven, dump the dough into the pot (don’t worry about how soggy and deflated it looks), cover with lid and bake for 23 minutes. Remove lid and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until bread comes to an internal temperature of 204 degrees. Remove from dutch oven and wait until it cools before eating. The crust is sensational. The bread is ever so good for sandwiches and toast. Google ‘no knead bread’ and you will find tons of blogs and photos of this amazing bread.

  5. Eclesiastes 11:1….”Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”

    Proverbs 9:17…..”Bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”

    Bread is a religious experience that Matthew Henry alludes to when he says in his Commentary on Isaiah and which was quoted by our Puritan foremothers…”Brown bread and the Gospel is good fare.”

    It is all relative……but the passage of time does make a difference. There is an old Italian Proverb that Mike Moreland used to quote…”Eggs of an hour, bread of a day, wine of a year, a friend of thirty years.”

    “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more!”

    Thanks Ben….I’m heading to the kitchen in search of the peanut butter and huckleberry jam.

    Ronn

  6. Thanks for all of the posts! I’m currently working to meet a deadline on an article I’m writing for Horizons, the national publication of Presbyterian Women, so I’ve been lagging behind in my blogging duties.

    On no-knead bread: My dad and fellow bread pilgrim (the Mike Moreland mentioned by Ronn) introduced me to the method, and I’ve been experimenting with it. It certainly has given me the best crumb of anything I’ve tried. Last night I used a more conventional method and got my best crust (I rolled out the dough, then rolled it up into a tube, then twisted it several times before setting it down to rise in a baguette pan; I made diagonal cuts against the twist of the dough and baked the bread with water in the oven and the crust was great), but the crumb was sort of pedestrian and the taste wasn’t as sour as I like. I currently have dough rising on top of the fridge. I’m going to try to do the no knead method for the crumb and something like I did last night for the crust. I’m not sure it will work given the messiness of no-knead bread dough, but I’m not entering any contests with my bread. I’ll try Shirley’s recipe next.

    Baking bread has been a stretch for me–not unlike learning to meditate.

    Ronn, enjoy the huckleberry jam. Does it come from the North Coast?

    Ben

  7. Terrific column, terrific replies!

    A somewhat different perspective: Among many things I learned in a year in Turkey is the cultural and visceral feeling for etmek, a rich, dark, hearty bread. It is unbelieveably delicious; it certainly was for this then-young GI’s palate.

    Etmek translates into English as “bread”, but it is far more than that culturally. It is a mainstay of diet and of life. In Turkey it is a crime to throw etmek in the streets.

    Maybe we in the west could learn from that example…

    Bill

  8. I’ve had good luck with sourdough. Check out the recipe for starter and for a simple loaf on my blog:

    http://survivela.blogspot.com/2007/03/make-sourdough-starter.html

    and

    http://survivela.blogspot.com/2007/03/sourdough-recipe-1-not-very-whole-wheat.html

    The key to getting a thick crust is to simulate the steam injection systems that commercial bakeries use. You do this by misting the inside of the oven in the first five minutes of baking the loaf.

    Good Luck,

    SurviveLA

  9. Survive:

    Great looking loaf. I’ll give it a try. And I’ll throw out the bottled water I’m using to keep the starter in hooch.

    Bill:

    Thanks for the good word. I’m reminded of the fact that the crazy dictator in Turkmenistan changed the word for “bread” renaming the stuff after his mother.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  10. I have cylindrical bread tube pans of various shapes, and want to know how to bake bread in them, and whether or not I can adapt recipes such as those with raisins, walnuts, etc. Apparently, the maker of these pans was pampered chef, but no free recipes are offered, and the internet finds stuff such as the tube on a food processor, etc. etc.
    Can you help? The e-mail address is correct!

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