I’m baking bread the old fashion way: mixing and kneading it, letting it rise for several hours, kneading it again, placing it in bread pans, letting it rise again, and baking it. I make it on Fridays after work, usually within fifteen minutes of arriving home, and have been since September of 2012. It's become a ritual. It's become therapeutic. It's become delicious bread that I eat for the week.
So delicious that in November when I had two months of experience and baked white bread for my birthday dinner with my friends Jen and Jen and Jonah, their eight year old son, Jonah said, “James, your bread is better than bread at a restaurant.” Coming from the fine taste buds of my godson, I value his compliment and opinion.
I made white bread the first week, then half white and half wheat the next week, then whole wheat, and have played with these three combinations every Friday since. I've added herbs and spices to different loaves: rosemary, thyme, basil, cinnamon, Mrs. Dash's Original Spice. My favorite bread is the half white and half whole wheat combination, nothing extra.
Last week, reading in Walden that Henry David Thoreau made only rye bread while he stayed at Walden Pond I made rye bread in honor of him. I always thought he baked and ate wheat bread, but because I am more aware of bread now, I noticed this detail in Walden. This is true for many things in our lives: we notice them when they are a part of our lives and we have a connection. The rye bread I made possessed a density I didn't expect, and yet, I could see how it felt like solidity and sustenance in Thoreau's mostly vegetarian diet. He wrote that bread “...always does us good.”
I agree. It's why I continue to make my own bread. Mixing together the flour, yeast, water, salt, sugar, and butter or olive oil and kneading it strips the bread of store bought preservatives and additives and affords me the opportunity to practice mindfulness. The process transitions me from the work week surrounded by the middle school children I teach to spending time with myself in the quietude of my home. I feel tension released from my body as I fold the dough and press firmly over and over again.
In October, while I was at my godson Jonah's birthday party, I mentioned to his grandma, my friend Jen's mom, that I started baking bread. A bread baker herself for many years, she told me that rather than time how long I kneaded the dough, which I was doing, I should intuit how long I should knead it. She told me to feel the give of the bread and sense when it was ready. “It will let you know,” she said.
After she told me this, I stopped timing how long I kneaded the bread and I began to use my intuition. It's not really intuition I soon realized; it's paying more attention to the dough itself—becoming more mindful of the dough and feeling when it feels slightly taut and ready to sit and rise. It's using my sense of touch.
Recently on CBS Sunday Morning Wynton Marsalis interviewed the woman whom he believed made the best gumbo in New Orleans. When he asked the secret to making gumbo she said that when you make the roux you can't leave the pot and do something else. You have to stay with it the entire time and stir it.
It's also true with kneading bread: stay with the bread, pay attention to the bread, and soon you feel what the dough feels like and you know when it's ready. That knowledge is the intuition of which Jen's mom spoke. Staying with the bread and devoting my attention and awareness to making bread is what I like about making my own bread. Be there. It's a philosophy that applies to everything in life. Be there. Pay attention and be aware of what you are doing. Be there. When you do that, you understand and experience the moment more.