I learned how to bake bread last fall. I had made several attempts over the years. My mother tried to show me how when she was staying with me after our eldest son Paul was born. There he was, sleeping in his pumpkin seat—the nights were party time for him—while she showed me how to knead. The trouble was, I always added too much flour, so my bread would turn out dense and dry. Bread recipes have gotten easier over the years, especially with the advent of measuring weights rather than volumes. So, armed with my trusty food scale, I was finally able to turn out a decent loaf of white bread. I experimented over Christmas, making everything from English muffins to Challah.
During an Advent communion service at church, I dutifully broke off a small piece of a multigrain boule and dipped it in the pseudo-wine. Perhaps it lacked the needed reverence of the moment, but I whispered to Marc how good the bread was. After church, I found out a fellow church-goer had made it from a recipe in the book “Bread in Five Minutes a Day.” Yep, you heard it right here, bread in five minutes. That immediately went to the top of my Christmas wish list and our middle son Peter obliged me with a copy Christmas morning.
The idea behind the book is that you can make a really loose bread dough using nothing but flour, salt, yeast and water and stirring it together. Because the dough is so hydrated, the gluten proteins line up—all by themselves—without any kneading. You just cut off a good size piece of the dough after it’s risen, shape it and bake it. It’s really good, and simple and homemade—and easy! What could be better? Bread conquered, done! Bam!
I was thus a bit mystified when Marc gave me another book for my birthday, named simply “Bread” by Jeffrey Hamelman. At 478 pages in a size 8 font, the book is an encyclopedia of bread making. It introduced me to words and ideas I had never heard before: yeasted pre-ferments such as poolish, autolyze, a “self-smoothing rest,” levain breads. It was overwhelming. But, I became intrigued, because although I had made sourdough bread several times, it just didn’t have the chew or the smell of a really good sourdough.
So, I decided to give this really complex method a try. I weighed my ingredients—sourdough starter, flour and water to start. The water needed to be 80 degrees, a somewhat frustrating temperature as our faucet seems to enjoy 77 degrees and 83 degrees with nothing in between. I mixed all this and let the dough rest a bit—excuse me, I mean autolyze—then mixed in the salt. From there I started folding the dough every half hour for a total of four times. At this point, you should be able to “windowpane” the dough, or pinch some up and spread it out thin enough to allow light through without breaking. Since my “windowpaning” didn’t work, I folded a fifth time before I finally saw the light. (I hope that made you smile. Or at least groan.)
Another one-hour rest period at room temperature was followed by an overnight slow rise in the refrigerator. I was going from my five-minute bread to day-and-a-half bread. So, the next day I took the dough out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature over two hours before dividing it with a knife since I didn’t have, and wasn’t likely to get, a bench scraper. Then on to pre-shaping, more resting, shaping, more resting, until finally it was ready to bake. I will not bore you with the plethora of pre-bake, intra-bake, post-bake activities.
Thirty-two hours after I started my grand experiment, I brought out the first sourdough boule from the oven. The aroma filled the room. The crust crackled loudly as I moved it from the oven to the cooling rack.
At dinner that night, Marc got the first piece.
“It’s really good, Honey,” he said. He paused as he chewed and then he closed his eyes. “Oh boy. That is really, really good.” He said it with great reverence.
You don’t always need to do things the long way. My five-minute bread is great for everyday, a treat rather than store-bought bread. But, there is something about taking the time, being patient, that can turn something good into something spectacular.
I know that one of the most crucial elements of my journey to becoming healthy and fit was time. I was changing the way I had lived but I wouldn’t see any results of my efforts for months. And months. Yet, every single day was slowly building my capacity and understanding of how to follow a healthy lifestyle. The time, the care, the attention all made that lifestyle as natural as breathing.
I appreciate the shortcuts we find in our daily lives. Sometimes, though, when something is important enough, we need to be patient, follow every little step and take the time to do it right.