I’ll get a rise out of you: Bread-baking meditation




The timer dinged next to my head. I awoke in disoriented grogginess from my nest of blankets on the living room floor, an old black and white movie flickering quietly on the TV set. Time to check the bread dough and see if it had risen to the appropriate level of springiness, whatever that was--this novice bread-baker wasn't sure and she had a long way to go before she tasted bread.

Bread Baking 101 lesson learned one Saturday night in high school, many years ago: Read the recipe all the way through. 

In your mouth-watering anticipation of the cinnamon swirl bread recipe in your mom’s Joy of Cooking, you may miss the cumulative clock effect of two risings in the bowl, followed by a third rising in the pan. Thus you may find yourself sleeping on the living room floor, the retreat you chose in recognition of the deep, deep abyss of sleep into which you will fall if you get into an actual bed since you are Sleeper Girl.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, off and on over the years I’ve been a bread baker. Usually whole wheat, sometimes bricklike. I used the Kitchen-Aid I got as a wedding present in 1986 from Grandma Humphrey so much for the kneading phase that eventually it gave off a light burning aroma when I ran it with those heavy batches of whole grain.

This led to The Great Kitchen-Aid Debacle. It makes me sad to relate this tale, as my mother raised me to believe in the brand virtues of Kitchen-Aid. She wasn’t wrong, as that 1986 mixer ran well into the early 2000s (outlasting the marriage). It worked even with the light burning smell, but that made me a tad nervous.

Hence my decision to invest in the new heavy-duty model with a bigger engine. BIG mistake. About five minutes into the second batch of bread dough the thing stopped dead. I mean DEAD. What the--? Let it rest a minute or two, try again. Nothing. I had the joy of finishing a big batch of bread dough kneading by hand when that hadn’t been part of my time calculation for the process.

This heat death happened not once, and not twice. When the third one quit—the second replacement unit—I just gave up. The guy at the local small-appliance repair shop (these do actually still exist, at least in Spokane) told me I could spend $75 on parts and labor and still have a problem because this super-duper Kitchen-Aid came from a line that had a faulty thermostat or some such.

The mixer sat in the garage for a while and then eventually disappeared, possibly in a cleaning/donating frenzy. I didn’t bake bread for a while. Life got pretty full and the hours it took to knead dough by hand and then tend it through three risings seemed too big a commitment.

I wondered why today as I stood at the kitchen counter, rocking slightly as I leaned into the batch of whole wheat bread with yogurt and quinoa I was kneading. The calm of the kitchen soothes me and I achieve a level of meditative peace as I work the dough.

I can’t tweet or post Facebook updates or read email while I’m kneading bread. I can’t get distracted and turn from the activity I’m engaged in to something else entirely and then jump back the way I do at work with my two monitors and long to-do list. I can't go to Google in search of some random factoid and find myself an hour and a half later catching up on my blog reading backlog. (Thank all the gods for "mark all as read." Those people at Google know me.)

There is only the bread, and the anticipation of eating it warm from the oven with butter and honey.

I stand where I can’t see the clock so I can truly get lost in the rhythm. The New Laurel's Kitchen serves as the holy text for my practice. Its friendly and practical descriptions of what to look for and how to turn dough into various items has tempted me from straight whole wheat bread loaves into whole wheat pita, wheat/oatmeal, and this week’s wheat/quinoa/yogurt rendered as a loaf and eight English muffins.

The first loaf always disappears in a family feeding frenzy reminiscent of those South American death-by-piranha scenes in bad old jungle movies (probably what I watched all those years ago on my lonely bread-rising vigil). The second might last a day or two longer. Since I can’t devote a full day midweek to a second batch we do still buy some store bread for sandwiches, but I’d like to drop that and turn out a batch of four loaves on the weekend to get us through the week.

Problem is, I really can’t knead THAT much dough alone. I’ll need a Kitchen-Aid….

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