A Rustic Routine

As I do with so many things, I briefly took to the challenge of bread making a few years ago. It was something to do on a Saturday in the winter when it was too cold to go outside. And, as I do with so many things, I felt like I got the hang of it and lost interest. It’s just the way I am. If I get obsessive about anything it stops being fun and I let it go. It’s about learning something new, not perfecting a skill.

For some reason I kept going back to bread. I stuck to simple recipes, occasionally tried to be creative by making swirls of seasonings, just enough to keep it interesting. Because of that, the resulting product was okay. It was fun to share with friends, have fresh toast in the morning and I knew what ingredients were going into it. Have you ever thought about how long a loaf of store bought bread lasts? It makes you wonder.

About the time I got into fermenting our garden peppers to make our own hot sauce, I began to read more about sourdough. Just as healthy bacteria develop through the natural fermentation of many foods, sourdough (levain) bread uses those same enzymes to prevent phytic acid production. Some suggest using a levain culture to make bread reduces phytates by 90%. Which means it’s easier on your tummy and better for you. Check out this article at the Sourdough School.

Making sourdough became a routine. Like a pet, I fed the levain every morning and every night. I’d make bread on the weekends and sometimes use the leftover for pancakes or biscuits. My creativity grew a little, after a trip to Paris, when I was gifted a pan for making baguettes. I’d never given it any thought, but was quickly enticed by the new challenge. Elements of making bread to which I paid little attention – humidity in the oven, temperature of the kitchen itself, hydration level, now carried more importance. (To any experienced baker, that last sentence probably caused them to have a stroke and for that I apologize.) Though the measure was small, the quality of the product increased. And with it, my interest.

One of my first baguette attempts

The best part of making bread was having it at family dinners on the weekends. Every Sunday, or sometimes Saturday, our chosen family gets together. It’s a great fellowship that has become an integral part of our lives. Bread, possibly the oldest, most basic form of food known to man became just as important. As a family, we also took to watching shows together. With the rise (pun intended) of baking shows, my interest always peaked when bread challenges were the focus. On one particular episode, I watched a baker use a razor blade, called a lame, to cut the bread with designs so it would bake into a pattern. Before the episode was over, I had my phone out scrolling through Amazon looking for a lame. During my search I stumbled on a book, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, by Ken Forkish. I added it and a lame to my cart and finished my order. Still can’t really tell you what prompted me to do it, other than I must have had enough of mediocrity and decided my family deserved better bread at dinner.

Whole wheat bread

I’m not going to drone on about the change in my process, though it was drastic, because that’s not what this post is about. Bread is nutritious, it’s fun to share, and fun to bake. My process is always improving. The part I want to highlight is the essence of the routine. It isn’t just about the healthy aspect of the food I’m making, it’s about the mental clarity it provides.

Some people exercise regularly, I have a schedule I follow to make bread for Sunday dinner. Bread baking, like a duck on a pond, is a wonderful analogy for my brain. On the surface, for the most part, it’s relatively calm. There is a bit of mixing involved but more rest. All the while, millions of little microbes are busy creating this complex structure. The schedule itself provides structure for me. It gives an opportunity to transition to the end of my week. It’s a distraction in some regards to the bustle of daily life because it requires me to slow down. It forces me to be active during the winter months when I want to be anything but. It’s a little bit of science, creativity and challenge all mixed together.

77% hydration levain with toasted almond slices

As silly as it may be, this rustic routine has become a part of my family’s life. Something to look forward to. My weekends revolve completely around the schedule of the bread in process, and they know it. They tolerate it, because it’s worth it. My levain culture is almost four years old now, I think, and I haven’t even begun to dive into all the other uses for sourdough starter. In many ways it is not at all surprising this routine is fun for me. Over the past several years I’ve leaned toward simpler things. Seemingly mundane tasks that provide far more benefit, at least for me, than so many other things we feel like we need to do. Marcus Aurelius was right, very little is needed to make a happy life.

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