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.