For over two years now I have been in therapy. It’s not the usual lie on the couch and reveal- all type but a self-induced variety. I call it bread therapy and I’ve gone bread mad. I have become a convert to crust and crumb, proselytizing recipes, methods, variable flour and grain combinations and hailing the wonderful staff of life, known in other languages also as brott, pain and manna. This re-awakening of an age-old art has re-opened the creative oven doors with its alchemical mix of air, heat, formulas and a baker’s touch.
It happened innocently enough. A friend’s inspiration, a book, and resounding accolades of simple recipes with an alternate twist in the process of bread making. It started with one recipe, torn from a newspaper, a recipe out of Jim Lahey’s book, “My Bread The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method,” that replicated the types of bread that he learned to make in Italy. The method seemed so simple, it intrigued me to try it.
The first step said to combine 3 cups of flour, a bit of salt, yeast and water and let it sit covered overnight. The second step seemed just as easy. After letting it slow rise overnight all I had to do was form the dough into a ball and let it rise for a few more hours. The final step seemed the most intriguing of all. It called for baking the dough in a preheated cast iron pot at very high heat.
Having made bread from scratch many years ago, it recalled a memory of flour and kneading, kneading and kneading. This new methodology seemed completely contrary to all the bread bibles I had ever known and was more laissez-faire. Mix leave, watch, rise and bake. I didn’t really understand it, but something had me hooked and I had to see how this would work.
I never would have predicted the personal journey that would evolve from one recipe, torn from a newspaper. A journey not only of discovering new recipes and methods but of learning, teaching and giving. Bread making has become my antidote for depression, my savior, so to speak. It has become my venue for curiosity and experimentation, a link to other worlds, languages, and personal memories.
Entering this floury therapy has opened my mind and senses. It has called for my eyes to see the process, my hands to touch and feel the dough transform itself from a floury mess to something supple, smooth and responsive. The second stage of the process draws one in even further, as hands and body work together. It is the visual that gives all the clues, and takes all the credit. A perfectly baked artisan bread is a creative work from a palette of ingredients. Like an artist with a fresh canvas, each loaf reveals the baker’s signature. It draws one to keep experimenting and baking loaf after loaf.
It has launched me into a world of textures, and temperatures, of touch and taste. I have lost myself in recipes and collected the crème de la creme of bread books. I have been seduced by sourdough and have been drawn to new twists on working dough. I’ve allowed my mind to go on tangents, considering breads and recipes from all over the world, and have let my mind spin out on new words that are now part of my baking lexicon. I love the mix of different languages in this bread world.
The word levain, for example, according to “Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire”, stems from the Latin word levare and the French lever, meaning to rise. In bread language, it refers to the flour and water combination that is left to naturally ferment, to be used in sourdough type breads. Other words like Poolish, refers to a batter-like starter, initially used by Austrian bakers. The word biga, reflects the Italian name for a similar type sponge starter. Other French and Italian words denote the shapes of bread.
A baguette, is a typical French bread that is long and narrow, as compared to a boule, which is round like a ball, or a fougasse, a flat, lattice- type bread, or a focaccia, a flatbread with a dimpled surface containing a spread of ingredients, like olives, onions, herbs and tomatoes.
Like a final performance after the dress rehearsal, I anticipate hearing that familiar sound of something hollow when I tap the crust, a signal that the process has reached its final stage. I listen to the internal crackle that sounds like a tinder fire coming from the inside of a freshly baked and cooling boule of country sourdough bread.
It is surprising where this world has led me. I don’t pretend to understand all the scientific changes that occur and how one sugar changes into another, or the retardant properties of salt, but each time I venture into this world I learn something else and may get a glimpse of how one element affects the other. I have learned that you can’t rush the process. You learn to trust your senses, your hands. I’ve learned there is no right or wrong way but many different ways. I’ve learned there are reasons for formulas and recipes, but that they too are also only guidelines, and that one can take these guidelines insert a bit of self-expression, a twist of ingredients and get totally absorbed in the creative process.
I take my habits with me, so my obsession with bread making comes with me wherever I go. Friends who said they had always wanted to bake bread but were afraid to do so, finally overcame their fears and started to bake after a day’s hands -on lesson.
I’ve tested my baking skills in Maine and Mexico, where I learned how humidity affects the baking process and where I made no- knead breads and fast- rising breads, like Foccacia, that worked well in a humid climate. I have given many loaves away, the giving as satisfying as the creating. There is so much more to learn on this bread and life channel as my interests continue to rise as surely as yeast in the dough.
There is a Sabbath prayer that is said over bread. I was with very old friends and part of a celebration that included the Friday night blessing over the Sabbath candles, wine and bread. The bread was a traditional Challah, a braided egg bread covered with poppy seeds that brought back memories from a childhood long past. The Hebrew words of the prayer fell effortlessly from my lips, another connection to life, rituals and memories. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam Hamotzi Lechem Meen Haaretz.
Blessed are You
Oh Lord Our God
King of the Universe
Who Brings Forth
From the Earth
It reminds me of the reverence and respect I should have before I break a section of newly baked bread.
I take the large glass Duralex bowl from the drawer, reach for my favourite baking tools, simple, yet familiar, stainless steel measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, a whisk and a wooden spoon. My mind settles and focuses and lifts away from its random firings, away from the grey clouds. I let the movements of my fingers and body take over, moving to something safe and satisfying, a result I know that will be gratifying and tangible, and that will uplift my spirit, and give me a reason for being. The aroma of creation escapes into the air. Now, I know it will be a good day.