Making Bread: A Meditation
By Athena Graves
I love the yeast. It is so unassuming when it is poured into the warm water; small light beige pellets that sink and stay in little lumps all huddled together at the bottom of the cup. They sit and become fuzzy and soft and then, slowly at first, one or two will jump to the surface of the water. Then without much advance warning, larger groups will explode to the top, leaping and fanning out into a bubbly top. Its growth is so exuberant and its smell, the smell of life: life-giving life. And I love the yeast because it makes me wait ten minutes before I can start anything. What a beautiful life-giving life-form.
The softness of flour amazes me.
the hard grains of wheat pounded and ground into something so soft. Given a breeze or rough handling, its particles would fill the air of a room. Yet, in its ground and battered form, there is a paradox alive in its brokenness. When poured into the yeast and water, the flour is like a two-year-old. It resists mixing. It says,
“I was broken and separated and I WILL NOT readily be joined to anything else.”
But by gently coaxing and blending, the flour yields and enjoys the mixing of its parts so that eventually it finds again some of what held it together, and in this rediscovery, begins to cling to itself and enjoy being part of a larger whole.
To a point, the flour allows more of itself to be blended, but will only submit to gentle blending; any rough handling incites its rebellious nature and the flour wills itself around the room. Those who work with this gentle mixture know that patience and understanding are required during this stage of the journey.
The flour, yeast and water reach a balance and the flour itself decides when enough has been added. When the kneading begins, the mixture sticks and asks for a small amount of flour to be added and eventually as the kneading continues, it will stop asking and yield to the rhythmic push and fold. I knead the way my grandmother did. I learned from her because my mother never made bread by hand. I do not even look at my own hands when I knead the bread, preferring instead to see her lovely, knobby, blue-veined hands. I miss her very much every time I make bread. The ache and loneliness for her is replaced by sad and sweet remembrance. Making bread is an act of remembrance for that lovely and generous woman who graced the world with her presence for eighty-nine years.
This kneading time opens my mind and purges me. If bread is to be made at all, this time must be completed and only the dough will tell when the time is ripe for rising. I find it so profound that the dough is ready for rising when a lightly dragged finger across its mound feels identical to a new mother’s first caress of her new-born’s skin; or to the slightly sticky sweetness of a sleeping child’s cheek.
The rise requires stillness and warmth. (Don’t all of us require these things at times when we are growing most?) Again, the dough itself will decide how long it needs for growth and only asks for occasional checking; for the most part, it asks to be left alone.
Punching down the dough after its first rise seems cruel and heartless. Yet, the dough quickly falls after the first big air bubbles are squished empty, as if knowingly submitting to this momentary setback. Pliant yet elastic, the dough is formed into two loaves and to cradle these in one’s hands is like holding a sleeping kitten. These are gently tucked into two loaf pans and again left alone to grow; but this time, their growth will be stronger and will not again need to be reformed or controlled.
And the life giving smell as the yeast and flour expend themselves is more lovely than all of the gifts bread can bring. And who can resist that first hot crusty slice still warm as the butter melts and slides over it?
Very few! mmm! Very few indeed.
Text copyright 2008 by Athena Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.