Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Baking bread

Baking bread is indeed a meditative and rewarding experience. I have been working hard at mastering the technique. Having been raised by a 'modern woman' who espoused many of the ideals of feminism and independence for women, one concept I learned young was to not spend time making from scratch what I could make from a mix or buy pre-made. Bread is the perfect example of this.

I've always admired those who can create such warm and tasty masterpieces from the simplest of ingredients with ease and confidence. Never having any opportunity to try before, my first attempts were rather comical. In one of my earliest and most memorable failures I had started yeast for the dough and was interrupted by unexpected visitors. Madame Yeast, being the rather persnickety creature she is, got a bit offended at being left alone so long. When I returned and proceeded with the bread recipe, she held a grudge against me and refused to cooperate. My bread turned out like biscuits, all crumbly and hard to hold onto, impossible to slice. I could just see her scoffing at me, "You do not desert Madame Yeast! She will not forgive and forget!" The bread was tasty, but it wasn't really bread. My family appreciates all efforts to fill their bellies, but I was disappointed.

Thankfully each subsequent attempt was more successful. I discovered in addition to being left alone, Madame Yeast detests liquid which is either too warm or too cool, and sometimes she likes a little sugar in the mix. She is also sensitive to the weather, proofing environment, and storage conditions. Once I figured out her eccentricities I was well on my way to being a happy bread baker.

Despite all of the early failures I continued to persist because of the desire I had to feed my family nutritious, hand formed bread. Oh, I did try a bread machine for a while but I found them to be more bother than they were worth. I didn't like the hole in the bottom of the loaf from the mixing. I would take the bread out of the machine to rise in a pan and bake without the hole. That worked well until we had so many children that one loaf from a bread machine wasn't enough to go around. Bread machines cannot handle a large family. Even when I used the machine I felt like I was cheating somehow. I wasn't kneading the bread by hand. This is where the meditative part of the bread making experience comes in.

Did you ever watch children play with dough? They all love it. Preschools cannot make the stuff fast enough. They love to roll it out, cut shapes, make snakes and logs, and squish it. We have a natural yearning to play with dough. Most of us suppress the urge, but some of us never quite outgrow it. That is a good thing, it keeps people eating fresh, homemade bread! There is one major difference between the dough preschoolers play with and the dough that bakes up into scrumptious bread however, and that is consistency of the dough. Kneading bread dough is hard work, but it is indeed very rewarding. While you are kneading, your entire upper body is engaged in the effort to push and fold, push and fold. The process is repetitive and mindless. It is a great time to think, I like to pray when I knead bread. During advent my husband helps to knead because of the quantity of loaves we produce. I need his strong shoulders and upper arms to help with the task. When he is kneading bread we have conversations. Whether praying or talking, the kneading process is always a pleasant experience. Hard, muscle building work, but it is a wholesome and virtuous task, taking your hands and working the dough to make a basic food for your family. Depending on the type of bread you are making you may still get to form snakes and logs, circles, or balls. You also are able to slash the top. Just like when you were a child, all the 'fun' is still there.

When you go to the trouble of making the bread to feed your family you can't help but draw a parallel to the Eucharist. Christ changed bread, the basic food of life, simple fare, wrought by human hands, made with love, into his Body. He feeds us and nurtures us with the most basic food for our souls, Himself, and he uses the most basic food from earth to do it. It is no wonder He chose bread, the food of life, to be the substance for transubstantiation. Once you experience making bread, you come fully around to the meaning of "The Bread of Life".

Then of course, at long last, there is the joy and sensual delight of the moment when the bread comes out of the oven. You've been inhaling the aroma of the bread baking, and the hot, freshly baked loaf is too much for the senses. Around our house the first loaf is for instant consumption. Steaming, the bread is just calling for butter, and the first bite is like heaven on earth. It is rewarding to set out a loaf of hand kneaded, home baked bread for your family to enjoy, and the process of getting there is almost as good as the first bite.


Magdalen Islands said...

I too had made bread for years, but now I don't seem to have time, so the bread machine has to do.

Cute tale of bread making!

Lily said...

I always thought the bread was tasty from a machine. I solved the aesthetic objection I had by baking it separately from the machine. The size of my family was an irreconcilable difference causing me to abandon the machine. :-)

Anonymous said...

My mouth is watering!!!!! I want some bread!

Excellent writing, Miss Lily.

Your blog has been added to my favorites list.

MaryT said...

Lily, I enjoyed your post. You are a multitalented woman!!!

Lily said...

Thanks for adding me to your favorites! Be sure to tell your friends to stop by :-)

Lily said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked the post. I believe the same could be said for you, multi-talented.

Katherine T. Lauer said...

What a fine description of the honorable, yet humble bread. And I love Madame Yeast! I too have scalded her and left her cold, alternatively.

Well, now I feel ashamed that I find even my bread machine "too hard" and it usually sits on my counter gathering dust. I shall have to get off my duff and try, try again!

ChillyChick said...

I had to laugh, Lilly (like your name BTW), I thought MaryT said you were a "mutilated woman"! I love your musings, if I had a blog I'd add you to my favorites list too.I've never been sucessful in my bread making, you make me want to try again.

Coffee Wife said...

AH! I finally found the bread baking article!! As soon as I have some time I'm going to give it a nice slow read! GOD BLESS!

M. Alexander said...

Ah, bread- I am totally addicted. While I held out for years against a bread machine my dear husband surprised me one Christmas and I'm sold on the doughmaking- never bake in it- because it keeps the kitchen clean!

Lily said...

Yes, Mary, the bread machine is good for that! Do you find the loaves are large enough? I know that when I had one, the loaves were too small, but I understand there are larger machines out now.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Lily. This post is perfect--so rich and full. Our Bread of life, Christ, is the most satisfying of all.

You caught my attention when you commented at my page that you have prayed while baking. I have done that too. I have never baked bread, except for banana bread which is totally different, although recently I am slowly but surely enjoying it very much, but I have baked here and there and remember praying while baking my famous banana bread one Christmas.

I had decided to bake banana bread loafs for my friends as gifts and I purchased embroidered kitchen towels to wrap them in. They turned out gorgeous. The point is that while I was baking them, I remember praying for each family they were going to. I will never forget that Christmas. Every single person who received one of those loafs had an expression that was priceless--pure joy. Some cried. They were like children experiencing Christmas for the first time. It was amazing. Come to think of it, I think I might do this again this year. Pray while you bake? Oh, absolutely.