Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Baking bread as an example of how to get your life on track

In my previous post I described the process of making sourdough starter. I pointed out that it is really easy if you follow the recipe. Following the recipe is the easy part. What's not so easy is finding the time and the right schedule to fit into a busy work week. I work a 40-hour week. I need to sleep about 6 hours, and I need some time for recreation. The way I have organized my bread-baking is as follows:

1. I start on Saturday by taking a tangerine-sized piece of starter dough and dissolving it in two cups of warm water and stirring in another two cups of bread-flour. That takes only about 15 minutes. But in order to get the logistics right, it has to be in the morning if I still want to watch soccer and dance and play music and whatever else I do. The mixture is losely covered and allowed to sit at room temperature for about a day. After a day the starter which looks like very thin batter will have formed all kinds of tiny bubbles. It really smells yeasty.

2. Twenty-four hours later on Sunday, I get ready to put the dough together. I make four batches that can be used for baking on four days of the week. To make the batches, I weigh 2 and 1/2 cups of bread-flour into four bowls and add 1 and 1/2 tsp. of salt. The salt needs to be mixed in really well. After that I use a ladle and add 3/4 of a cup of the batter from stage 1. The batter and the salty flour need to be mixed really well. Then I gradually add another 3/4 of a cup of cool water to the mixture to make it into a ball. This ball ought to be kneaded on a flat board with lots of flour so that the whole things looks like a respectable bread dough. This ball is placed into a well-oiled bowl to sit for at least 24 hours. Repeat this task until all four portions with the salty flour are gone. Place the oiled bowls with the dough into the refrigerator and let sit for a day.

3. The next day after work I take out the first bowl of dough. I split the dough in half and pull each half to fit into the length of a parchment-lined baguette tray. My baguette tray has places for three baguettes, but I only use two of them. The parchment is a good idea because it keeps the dough from sticking too much. The stretched out pieces of dough remain in the baguette tray over night covered with a cloth. I keep it in the oven at room temperature until the next morning. The oven turns out to be a good storage place and keeps the bugs out

4. At 5:40 AM I heat the oven to 485 degrees after taking out the baguette tray. Once the oven is hot, I slit the bread in several places so that the bread can expand, and I brush some water on the two unbaked loaves. As soon as I push the loaves into the oven, I spray the whole inside of the oven with a fine mist of water. This keeps the crust from getting too hard. After five minutes of baking, I repeat spraying the water into the oven. The bread will be done 20 minutes later. The whole process takes three days before the eating can begin.

The warm bread is something that comes closest to heaven that I know.

Bread baking is a task I have been involved in for about a year. But it's not just the great taste that makes it a worthwhile endeavor. It is the fact that the whole process brings a certain amount of order and regularity into my life, that makes it equally as important. I relish the fact that I can get it done. I like it that I am doing something productive that brings me down to earth without the virtual nature of TV and computer, and tasting the bread is better than watching Iron Chef concoct something that I have no involvement in. I use my arms and hands for kneading the dough. It's messy, and it's real work.

While I perform this task I think of the history of bread making and I have a sense of wonder about who the first person was who made the discovery. I don't mind reinventing bread once a week. Inventing the wheel was not so hard. Making bread must have been a life-changer.

Bread baking has a mystical quality. There is always something new about it. Making bread had always been the job for the baker. Now I am the baker, and that feels like I have learned something that people have done for thousands of years, and yet only very few people nowadays know how to do. The charm is in the simplicity. I even enjoy the plodding nature of this task.

I am completely in control. I am the master of my task.


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