Here in San Diego, fall is a muted, almost imaginary phenomenon, nearly impossible to distinguish from the gorgeous weather we’ve had all summer. (And really, all year.) But the nights are finally getting cooler, and the days are getting shorter, and that means it’s time to bake bread.
I love to bake bread.
This isn’t just about how much I love eating really good bread. I mean, I do love that, too. But the process of making bread is a deeply satisfying pursuit in and of itself, and one that’s served me well through years of changing surroundings, circumstances and motivations. It’s timeless. Over the course of several years, I’ve gradually become a skillful enough baker to handle all the bread needs of our household, a process that’s taught me much more than just the skills needed to create bread. Bread baking was my gateway drug, and cracking that code made me realize that there are a whole lot of previously intimidating culinary skills that are worth mastering.
Back in the restaurant days, when we were tight on cash, homemade bread, and that other champion of cash-strapped cooks, homemade soup, was how I fed myself when I wasn’t at work. The combination of being tight on cash and curious about bread works well; I think it’s because baking bread is a lot more about getting back to basics than it is about developing a expensive food hobby. The ingredients are cheap, the process is relaxing, the house smells wonderful while bread bakes and the results are wholesome, filling and delicious. Even mediocre homemade bread is superior in every way to store-bought, and the pleasure of this self-sufficient indulgence chases thoughts of payroll, huge electric bills and the fact that you’re short a server tomorrow out of you head for a few minutes.
Since I left the restaurant business behind, I’ve changed the way I bake a little. As a writer, I work from home, so the fermenting process going on in my kitchen can easily dictate the pace of my day. I’ve almost exclusively switched from using packaged yeast to using wild sourdough. I’m preparing to equip my kitchen to mill our own grains for flour. We brew our own beer now, too, and marrying these two processes appeals to my “no single-use equipment” aesthetic. We’re in the market for an outdoor oven. As you can see, if you want to take the process of creating artisan loaves to the level of expensive food hobby, you can, but you sure don’t have to. Bread’s accommodating like that.
The unhurried pace of bread baking, with its requirements for periods of rest, work, attention and waiting, gives structure to my free-form days. I know this sounds a little weird, but I value the interaction I have with the living yeast spores, who are much more in control of the relationship than I am. It’s good to remember that the some things really aren’t able to be hurried, and that serving the needs of these tiny organisms means that they’ll in turn serve mine. These living things react to temperature, pressure and their surroundings; learning to give them what they need in turn provides you with what you need.
I also like that bread is a reasonable metaphor for life. You use the living starter make a leaven, use this to make a loaf or two, and then use the leftover leaven as starter for the next batch. It’s a cycle, and as long as it’s fed and kept at a reasonable temperature, it’s endless. It sets limits, but is still responsive and revealing. It teaches. How? Well, it’s not fussy, but it demands that the process be honored, and that the procedure be adhered to until you’re confident that you’ve learned enough to wing it a little. But it’s easy on beginners, too, somehow—often mistakes can result in good bread, depending on when and how you screw it up. Other times, well, you just have to start again after studying what went wrong. Each batch is a new opportunity. You gradually learn what works and fine tune as you go.
Judaism and Christianity have some pretty strong ideas about bread, the 1960s counterculture embraced bread baking as a way of opting out of the mainstream, and I don’t know about you, but when I think of frontier women, I think of a spinning wheel, a butter churn and sleeves rolled up for kneading dough. I like to think about how this simple food, made up of so few ingredients, is so unchanged that a 17th century baker who somehow got dropped my the 21st century kitchen would be perfectly at home throwing a whole wheat loaf together with what they found. Yes, I actually think about this stuff. I think about how wild yeast surprised some long-ago householder when they found it bubbling in a pan of discarded grains and water. I think of how the fermentation process is embodied in Christian mysticism in the form of bread and wine. I think about how unleavened bread is meant to remind Jews of their hurried departure from Egypt, leaving no time for yeast to develop. It was road food, the first fast food, even. Having time to let yeast ferment means you’re home, and secure. It’s when people are settled and able to cultivate the land and a home that yeast becomes beer, wine, cheese and bread. Yeast is the foundation of domesticity. Why not celebrate your culinary independence with some homemade bread? There’s no better teacher than the process itself.