The Art of Baking Bread

This year for Lent, David and I decided that we would give up waste.  We would make a concerted effort for 40 days to not waste money, time, resources, food, etc.

Giving up waste is a practical goal, but also an existential one.  We are constantly trying to simplify our life: get rid of the clutter, minimize our footprint, enjoy life beyond the “stuff-ness” of it, and revel in the living of it.

So, as my contribution to this commitment, I decided that I would minimize our need to buy prepackaged bread at the store, and would bake bread every week.

It is here that I should confess that I have never baked bread, ever.  I worked in a Subway one summer when I was in college, and we “baked” bread there; baking bread at Subway consists of thawing frozen loaves of bread dough, and then putting it through a variety of machines until it is baked.  There is no measuring of flour or kneading.

But, I thought, how hard can it be?  I can follow a recipe!  I was a chemistry minor in college!  I know how to measure precise amounts and I can use a timer, and HEY! the Internet will tell me what to do.

So I found a recipe that looked great.  Whole grains!  Great reviews!  I measured exactly.  I set timers, and… I am now the proud owner of two flat, dense lumps of flour, water, yeast and salt.  It looks more like a wheat cake than an actual loaf of bread.

I took my first chemistry class in high school with a teacher named Mr. Flynn.  He was a sarcastic, unsympathetic, difficult person, and an amazing teacher.  He had a reputation among the students for being unrelentingly difficult and for giving tough exams.  Some students called him unfair, but he was actually remarkably fair.  If you prepared, worked your butt off, and learned the material, you would do well in the class.  If you didn’t, well, you wouldn’t.

I remember my first exam in Mr. Flynn’s chemistry class, because I got a “C” on that exam.  I had never in my LIFE gotten less than, say, an A- on anything, and so a “C” was devastating. I was embarrassed and hurt.  I thought I had prepared.  I thought I had learned the material, but really, I had only scratched the surface.

I went on to learn a great deal from the classes I took with Mr. Flynn (and I eventually did quite well in his classes).  I learned that chemistry is not as exact a science as most text books would lead you to believe.  You can follow a recipe all you want, but you won’t get results until you can get a feel for what’s happening in the lab.  Chemistry becomes about intuition and following hunches.  It’s about practicing a procedure over and over again until it’s nearly second nature.  Chemistry is like playing a musical instrument. It requires failure and resilience paired together, and you will never do anything interesting until you fail a few times.

So I’m now waiting for my lumps of flour to cool to see if any part of the loaves might be spared for my daughter’s peanut butter sandwiches.  I think I know approximately what went wrong.  I followed the recipe to the letter, not giving in to any of my own intuition or hunches. I jumped in and acted when I should have waited.  I decided to wait when I should have acted.  And there is no way that I can learn how to trust my intuition better except to bake another loaf.

Baking bread can be a metaphor for so many things in life: parenting, relationships, pregnancy, etc.  But that is because baking bread is not about following an exact recipe.  Baking bread seems to be more about getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t, having the patience to let the dough rise enough, and then trusting your own instincts enough to know that you can’t do anything interesting until you’ve managed to fail a few times.




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