Baking Bread, Growing Patience

My favorite bread recipe — a robustly chewy, flavorful peasant bread with an indomitable crust — takes no less than 15 hours to make from start to finish. Most of this time is spent waiting for the yeast to do its thing. I confess, my favorite part comes right at the end: the scent of bread permeating the house, the crunch of a perfect golden crust, the steam that rises from cutting into it, the utter satisfaction of the first bite. I may have started baking bread to reduce my food miles and the number of plastic bags that enter my home, but it has become something else altogether.

Lightening my impact has taken me places I never thought I’d go. Mindfulness was always Kevin’s thing, some vaguely Buddhist/new agey philosophy adopted by upper middleclass white people who do yoga. Interconnection likewise had little appeal for a misanthropic introvert. And patience? That was for people who had too much time on their hands.

Yet here I am with my 15 hour bread recipe. Going green[er] has unexpectedly turned out to be about slowing down, paying more attention, and taking back aspects of my life that have long been outsourced to corporations or machines. The homey, slow pleasures of baking bread, walking to the market, line drying clothes, and making stock are subtle, perhaps ridiculously quaint to someone accustomed to instant gratification. But I think we’ve lost something important by no longer doing these ‘chores’ the long way. Sometimes I use this time to think or write in my head. Other times, I am able to quiet my chaotic brain and focus simply on the scents of damp, clean clothes and sunshine, or on the feel of soft dough under my busy hands. There’s something downright meditative about all of it.

I often feel impatient with the environmental movement. My Twitter feed supplies me with an endless stream of tragedy, destruction, loss, and emergency, all stemming from our impact on this small, fragile planet. The incongruity of the news and our daily lives and actions — how can we hear about the oil spill and, not ten minutes later, get into our cars? how can we know about loss of biodiversity and still be trafficking in endangered species and palm oil? —  sometimes makes me angry, sometimes makes me despair. I want to fix it now. Big changes. No more burying-head-in-sand rhetoric.

Maybe a little patience is in order here, too. We didn’t mess things up overnight. We’ve been on this path for a while; it’s going to take a while to get back on a sustainable one. Despite considerable resistance to going back to older, less convenient, slower ways of doing things, the limitations of our planet will eventually force us to adopt sustainability. It would, of course, be a lot better if we adopted it voluntarily, en masse, and now, but let’s be realistic: it’s probably not going to happen. I don’t think that should stop us from doing as much as we can, but in working towards and hoping for progress — well, patience might be inevitable.

Has going green helped you to slow down? What are your thoughts on the direction environmentalism is taking?

In case you’re interested in cultivating patience, here’s the bread recipe in question. It’s vegan and almost foolproof. I have seriously messed it up in several ways (most notably putting in farina — cream of wheat — instead of whole wheat flour), and it has always come out perfectly edible, so I think it will work for you, too. It may seem a bit fussy the first time around, but it gets easier. Note: this one is for gluten lovers. Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s wonderful How to Bake.

Best & Easiest Homebaked Bread (makes two loaves)

Starter
1/4 tsp yeast
1 c warm water (wrist temperature)
1 c whole wheat flour

Dissolve yeast in water for 3 minutes, stir in flour, cover and allow to double at room temperature (4-8 hours). Be a little generous with all of the ingredients in the starter.

Sponge
1 tsp yeast
1 1/2 c warm water
All of the starter (should be about 2 cups)
4 c unbleached all purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in water for 3 minutes, stir in flour and starter. Cover and allow to triple at room temperature (4-8 hours — I usually let it go overnight). Use the biggest bowl you have.

Dough
All the sponge
2 1/2 – 3 c all purpose flour
1 TB salt
a little olive oil for the bowl and baking pans
a little corn meal to help prevent from sticking and for extra crunch

Stir sponge to deflate and stir in salt and flour (start with 2 1/2 c, add more later if necessary during kneading). Knead on a lightly floured surface about 5 minutes, adding more flour if dough is too sticky. After five minutes, dough should be smooth and slightly sticky. Oil a new bowl, put the dough in it, and turn it over so that the top is oiled. Cover and allow to double (about an hour).

Oil two medium loaf pans (I think mine are 4.5 by 8.5) and sprinkle lightly with corn meal. Punch down the dough, cut in half, flatten, and roll each half to fit the pan. Cover again and allow them to double (about another hour).

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 500 degrees. When the loaves have doubled, cut slits in the top with a sharp knife. Put the loaves in the oven and turn the temperature down to 450. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow. Remove from pans to a wire rack immediately and allow to cool at least 10 minutes before cutting. (If you wait until the bread is completely cool, you will be able to slice it much more thinly.) Freezes nicely, but tastes best fresh — terrific with a hearty soup or on its own, slathered with your favorite spread.

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31 responses to this post.

  1. Jennifer,

    This is a lovely celebration of the surprising benefits you’ve found by going green. I loved your description of the process of baking bread. There’s so much yet to discover about ourselves that we may never know if we opt for constant stimulation and immediate gratification. Integrating mindfulness off the incredibly important. I’m glad bed baking and some of these other activities are taking you to that calmer place in your mind.

    I certainly feel the urgency you speak of. But, as you wisely point out, we can only do what we can. Might as well breath deeply and approach it all with a relaxed spirit as best we can.

    Reply

    • Sandra, thank you so much for your kindness. Your comments always encourage me to continue blogging, thinking, and living more mindfully. (Come to think of it, I chose that word to guide this year at your encouragement!)

      Ultimately, I’m not sure panicking will really get us anywhere. Sometimes I think it’s panic that drives our head-in-the-sand tendencies — deep down we know we’re in so much trouble that we just can’t face it. The situation is urgent, it’s true, but we’ll all be better off if we act thoughtfully.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Chris Moberg on 03/23/2011 at 17:05

    As places becomes more and more sterile, when what we eat is less and less connected, and when what we experience is no longer alive, we lose what it is like to be human. The fabric of things is subtle, but when you turn the music up too loud for too long, everything sounds the same. I am happy that you have shared a story of snapping out of that in “chores.” The thing that makes you different from a yoga-yuppie, is that they try to silence themselves but don’t succeed. But you do that without trying.

    Reply

    • Hey Chris,
      Thanks for not considering me a yoga-yuppie! I’m flattered. (Actually, I don’t do yoga, and I definitely don’t make enough money to qualify as a yuppie.) I think you’re right in that we’re so overstimulated that slowing down often seems completely ridiculous. I’m not espousing washing clothes by hand, and I certainly appreciate many of the conveniences of modern life, but connecting with our food, at least, seems like a reasonable goal.

      Come over some time, and I will have a freshly baked loaf of bread waiting for you.

      Reply

  3. Posted by seitei on 03/23/2011 at 19:03

    My version of burying my head in the sand is to not read up on current events, not watch television, not listen to the radio. I pay more attention to my immediate surroundings, and, when I do, I feel a lot calmer, am more able to slow down. Of course, I don’t always do this; I’ll inevitably read the newspaper or listen to an NPR program, subsequently finding myself either distressed or angry!

    As for the environmental movement, I feel as if it is too disjointed. I get letters in the mail from at least 6 environmental organizations (not counting the ones I already support). Though I realize they all have their different foci and agendas, I sometimes wish they could all unite, reach a wider segment of the population, and effect even greater changes.

    I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point,’ and find myself wondering what it will take for ‘being green’ to become a social epidemic. Any ideas?

    Reply

    • I also wonder what it will take for green to go truly viral, and am sadly coming to the conclusion that rational thought and facts will have nothing to do with it. I’m thinking that it won’t become a ‘social epidemic’ until it truly becomes social — when not being green is considered hopelessly uncool and there is a tremendous amount of social and peer pressure for us to be green. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, though. It would take the green equivalent of Facebook!

      I hear you on the scattershot approach to the very vague idea of ‘saving the planet.’ Corporations and industries definitely have it easier; their goal of profit is incredibly straightforward in comparison. Yet I’m hesitant to endorse a single way to be green and am hopeful that having many open channels will allow us to talk to more people and offer more ways into environmental responsibility.

      Reply

  4. Hi. I just stumbled across your blog and am glad I did.

    I’ve been surprised by how much going green has been about slowing down. It’s been a plesant and unexpected outcome. How do people find the time to think they’re not hanging out the washing, riding their bike, or taking the time to bake and home cook?

    Reply

    • Hi Tricia!
      I’m glad you found my blog! I hopped over to yours just now and read that you were from Newcastle. When I was a student in England, I looked up Newcastle, England, in anticipation of visiting and was surprised to find it full of tanned, smiling people. It took quite a few minutes (and produced no little disappointment) before I realized I was on the Newcastle, Australia site.

      I think there’s a lot to be said for slowing down and doing things the old ways. Sure, they take longer, but the physical exercise and mental space are two things modern life has all but squeezed out of daily existence. Going green and slowing down are both about reconnecting and being more mindful. However, I’m skeptical that we can promote being green on the merits of hanging up the wash and baking bread! Definitely not sexy enough.

      Reply

  5. I can’t wait to try out that recipe! Unfortunately for the dough, I keep my home pretty chilly (turned the thermostat down once to save energy, then turned it down again to save money), so I hope it will rise. Here in Toronto we’re going through another cold snap, so my kitchen isn’t exactly an optimal bread baking environment. Still hoping to bake at least loaf from a new recipe before the month is up!

    As for where I think environmental movement is going, I worry that as with so many other things, it will become a passing fad. It’s hard for me to gauge because my main source of information is Twitter – and my account is devoted to all things green! Sames goes for my online subscriptions: I read updates on websites that promote environmental initiatives. At the end of the day, I have no idea how the general public feels about slowing climate change and conserving water. And I worry that the answer won’t exactly soothe me.

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,
      According to Nick Malgieri, long, cool, slow risings produce an — how did he put it? ‘inimitable flavor and texture not achievable by faster breads.’ As long as it isn’t so cold that it kills the yeast (yeast actually survives in the fridge!), it should be fine if you give it a little extra time. It hasn’t been exactly warm here, either, though I can’t complain. I’d love to swap bread recipes with you sometime.

      I live in the same environmental bubble that you do, mostly surrounded by people who care and worry about where we’re headed, but occasionally I come across articles that suggest that we’re in the minority. A recent one I read said that a majority of Americans would prioritize fixing the economy over fixing the planet. I was stunned by the myopia of it all. Surely there can be no economy on a dead planet? I’ve been looking all along for ways to make sustainability matter to more people, but I haven’t come up with much.

      Reply

    • Posted by seitei on 03/24/2011 at 13:03

      maybe that’s it! (or part of it.) maybe there is no such thing as a ‘general public’. Here we are, all of us (or maybe all of you, as I don’t blog or generally say much anyway) preaching to the choir, when we really need to be having one-on-one talks w/ our neighbors and co-workers and those we interact w/ on a daily basis. (and I know that idea is scary to plenty of folk -not to mention our beloved hostess, here.)

      Having these talks w/ acquaintances, neighbors, etc, we’ll soon see that the ‘general public’ is nothing more than many individuals, all along some spectrum of ‘green-ness’ (or not). Sure, the internet is great for communication, but maybe we’re relying too much on it to spread ideas…

      Reply

      • Hey, I’m still working on looking people in the eye when I pass them. Interact intelligently and persuasively with people in real life? In this lifetime? I have no doubt that that would be the hardest ‘green’ thing I could ever do, including switching to a composting toilet and/or ditching the car. But you’re right. It needs to happen.

        Reply

        • Jennifer, if you convince yourself that having constructive conversations with strangers about important issues is crucial to our long-term (medium-term?!) survival, then I’m sure you’ll find a way to become more comfortable in these interactions. Where there is a will, there is a way. You just need the right motivation. Much of what we do every day is easy because it is habitual. So all we really have to do is start practising the new behaviours that we’d like to adopt. It’s tough, but it’s simple. Am I making any sense?

          Reply

      • Interesting concept, seitei. If we begin a ripple effect with spreading knowledge first to family, friends, and colleagues, then to their family, friends, and colleagues, and so on, then I guess we’re dealing not so much with an unidentified mass of people, but rather a web with connections in many directions. 6 degrees, right?

        Reply

        • Oh, you’re both making plenty of sense. I’m just trying to picture myself talking to my neighbors who drive their damn truck a few yards over to the laundry room and utterly failing to see how this could not end in my being lynched. I think I’m afraid of people, or I’ve never been properly socialized. Cats are so much easier!

          Reply

  6. I still can’t wrap my head around a 15 hour recipe! Your words are beautiful Jennifer-the way you tied your bread making into your journey to go green. What a wonderful reminder that the world didn’t become what it is today overnight. We need patience and perseverance to succeed in making this a better place for us all. You are an incredible role model and example for the rest of us. Thank you.

    Reply

    • Hi Lori,
      Well, the actual work time involved is less under an hour, otherwise I’d be far too lazy to make this recipe. It mostly involves letting it sit. And then doing something with it for five minutes, and then letting it sit some more while I go do other things. (Including sleep!) Thank you so much for your kind words, but I’m really not a role model — I just don’t blog about all the things that I do that aren’t very mindful or green. When I get rid of the car, switch to solar thermal, and start composting, then I might consider myself something a little more serious than medium green.

      Reply

  7. Patience, something I am working on! Being impatient to make all the changes, do everything, save the world, prepare for the future… well, I am learning now that isn’t helping anyone, let alone myself! I have recently bought the Healthy Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book, but have for now, put it on the shelf, and will just keep making my own in our breadmachine. Sounds like a cop-out, but I think choosing your ‘battles’ (or challenges is a better word!) is wise…

    Reply

    • Given how much stuff you’re already juggling, I think a little patience (and selectivity!) sounds like a great idea. I think you’re already on your way to figuring out a balance between what you want to do and the priorities you already have, and my hat’s off to you — I sure couldn’t get anything done if I had two small children!

      Do you think bread machine bread is as good as handmade? For now, I do have the time to make bread by hand, but if that ever changes, I may want the option of a breadmaker.

      Reply

      • I haven’t ever made bread by hand, well, maybe some gluten free soda bread, but would love to try, esp. the Artisan Gluten Free bread recipes (my husband is Coeliac). Our breadmaker is a good one (Sunbeam Quantum Smartbake) recommended for gluten free bread, which does come out very good! For the kids though, we buy a bulk Aussie multigrain bread mix (it comes in a paper bag, so minimal waste) and add chia to it too, and it’s a good bread…easy and convenient. I am not a huge bread eater, but think handmade bread would be rather divine!

        Reply

  8. Posted by ecoconvert on 03/26/2011 at 17:50

    I think it’s both: interior and exterior. There is more than one way to effect change. BTW, thanks for the bread recipe! Do you have a gluten-free one too?

    Reply

    • I’m afraid I don’t have a gluten free recipe, but you could ask DixieBelle. I love chewy, textured bread with TONS of gluten, and this bread, with its long rising time, has more gluten than you can shake a fist at. I don’t really get the gluten-free thing, to be honest. While I know some people are genuinely allergic to gluten, it seems like it’s gotten overblown into a fad.

      Reply

  9. You’ve nailed it right on the head. Going green is the opposite of the fast paced world we now live in, it’s not convenient, and it takes work. If it was easy more people would be doing it! Thanks for reminding me to have patience, with myself and with others. :)

    Reply

    • Thanks, Christy! I remember reading your post on meditation and how patience and slowness were challenging for you. (Sitting is not a problem for me; going out and doing stuff and making changes is.) I hope the reminder helps you stay sane in the next few months. Best wishes for you and your dad.

      Reply

  10. [...] Pioneer Wife Bread: Food for the Apocalypse Filed under: Eat It, Familiy by ecoconvert — Leave a comment March 31, 2011 I got this recipe from @noteasy2begreen. You can check out the original post by clicking here. [...]

    Reply

  11. Posted by Emily on 04/12/2011 at 06:13

    Hey Jennifer. I made your bread and ate it with (vegan) African Peanut Stew last night now dinner. Very good bread- even Mark liked it! I may have you beat on time. I was busy, so it took me 31 hours from start to eating hot from the oven. Well worth it! Thanks for sharing. Here is another, quicker bread recipe that I like a lot: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/Artisan-Bread-In-Five-Minutes-A-Day.aspx. I’ll try to blog the stew recipe soon- it was also very good.

    Reply

    • Emily, thank you for the quick bread recipe. I’ve been wanting a bread that doesn’t require quite so much planning ahead. The long rising time of my recipe IS a deterrent. In fact, I’ve been meaning to make it for a week now and still haven’t got around to it. I’m glad you liked it! It’s a wonderfully sturdy bread to eat with hearty soups and stews.

      I’d love to try your African Peanut stew. I’m so impressed you’re making handmade bread and vegan stew! :-)

      Reply

  12. [...] been for the latter. I cook my food from scratch, line dry my clothes, mix up my own moisturizers, bake my own bread, and even fold my own kitty litter bags out of old [...]

    Reply

  13. [...] vaccination, and at a time when everyone is shunning the evils of gluten, I’ve taken up baking bread. (Chewy, crusty bread that crackles when taken out of the oven…) However, given inevitable [...]

    Reply

  14. [...] Regardless, sharing resources does tend to reduce our individual impact, whether we’re talking about public transportation or electricity. David Owen of The Conundrum points out that New York City dwellers have a lower per capita impact than Portland residents due to dense urban living that makes individual yards, large living spaces, and personal cars difficult. Living alone is significantly more resource intensive than living with a partner. (Sorry, fellow misanthropes.) I expect that a commercial bakery producing many loaves of bread each day has a lower per-loaf energy impact than my small scale bread baking. [...]

    Reply

  15. [...] Living alone is significantly more resource intensive than living with a partner. (Sorry, fellow misanthropes.) I expect that a commercial bakery producing many loaves of bread each day has a lower per-loaf energy impact than my small scale bread baking. [...]

    Reply

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