A few years ago, I heard a broadcast on National Public Radio about artisan bread anyone could make in just five minutes a day. The process involved just four ingredients, a little mixing, almost no kneading, and a great deal of waiting. The chef behind the idea had written a book which explained the process in more detail and provided recipes for using the dough in pastries and breads of all shapes and sizes. But the basic recipe itself was offered for free.
Disbelieving, I decided to give it a try.
After the initial combining of ingredients, there was a five hour wait. Then, after refrigerating the dough overnight, there was a smaller wait of about 40 minutes so the dough could rest. And then, there was the 30 minutes of baking. Finally, the bread cooled and the waiting was over.
Out of the oven came a round loaf of bread with a crisp, firm crust and a soft, pocketed body. I thought it was delicious, possibly the answer to all my problems. I imagined having fresh baguettes every day.
Then, I remembered that I don’t do “every day” very well, and the left over bread didn’t heat up in the toaster like I’d hoped. Plus, all that waiting made the claim of “artisan bread in five minutes a day” seem a little bit like false advertising.
I had asked too much from a loaf of bread.
Leslie Leyland Fields writes about her expectations of bread in “Making the Perfect Loaf of Bread,” the final essay of The Spirit of Food. Her recipe for the perfect loaf of bread sounds similar to my miraculous artisan bread in five minutes: too good to be true.
I try to follow the instructions exactly, but I am too good at disbelieving. I think of recipes as suggestions. The flour and water – blend for thirty seconds? It does not look like bread dough. It is shaggy and too soft. I trust my body, my eyes, my hands on a whisk, the feel of the thickness of a batter more than I trust a page with someone else’s formulations. I trust the years of making bread and all I’ve learned from the bowls, the kneading board. Now, this is it? There’s so little dough, it could fit in my hands, but I’m not to knead it or to touch it in any way.
But wanting to believe in this perfect loaf of bread, she continues. In the waiting, Fields recounts her previous bread-making experiences. When she was young, she and her siblings made coarse, brown bread to take to school for their lunch, its color and density a source of shame among their classmates. When she was a young mom, an angry young woman, Hannah, came to live with her family to help raise her six young children, and Fields taught her to make bread. She seemed to thrive with them those two summers. Fields learned a year later that even the bread couldn’t save her young friend from her anger, though. Hannah took her own life.
As she continues now, making the perfect bread, it feels all wrong to her, with its hands off, waiting approach. Fields is used to touching the dough, kneading it, forming it. She asks herself, “What will I do in those hours the bread is making but I am not making it?”
Eventually, despite her doubts, the bread is done, and she brings it to the table, along with the rest of the meal she has prepared. She is nearly aghast when her family begins eating the bread and complementing her on the “best bread” she’s ever made. Her daughter even asks her how she made it.
How do I tell her? I didn’t really. This is not mine; this is like my childhood bread: so little of this is the doing of my hands. I was told what to use. I followed someone else’s formula. I didn’t lean my own body into it. I didn’t press and shape it into life. It is not my work but the patient work of hours I spent sleeping, while the yeast exhaled gasses, caught by the gluten, then transformed in the magic of heat and steam-none of this mine, all borrowed. How can I rightly claim it?
There it is again: we expect too much from bread. But not just in the eating, but also in the making.
“Man cannot live by bread alone” nor can he live by the making of bread alone, either.
In the end, bread cannot save any of us.
I am writing today in community with my friends at thehighcalling.org. We are working our way through the book, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. This week, we considered the last two essays of the book, in a section called “Feasting.” Click on the button above to see what others are writing.
Also, read Cheryl Smith’s thoughtful post about making bread from this past weekend: Some Things Can’t Be Rushed.
Follow the link above to the NPR story for the recipe for “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.”
Photo by Chiot’s Run. Used with permission under the Creative Common’s License.