Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bread Chronicles III - The Kneading Process

A silken cocoon
awakens beneath my hands.
Somatic rhythm
pushing, pulling:
The ebb and flow of lunar rule,
a protean transformation
graced by the gods.

Like the dough I knead, this autumn produced protean changes in me as well. The changes, some of which I cannot yet describe, can be seen, however, in the little things like taste preferences. I no longer like milk in my tea, I have a reduced desire for chocolate and, as it seems,  diluted cravings for bread, specifically my bread.

Last week I ended my blog with the question of whether I would or would not like my recently baked bread. In rereading it I found I was not clear as to why this was important or even relevant. The key was in the opening paragraph: “there is also something else lurking in my barely concealed subconscious: maybe I don’t want to like it anymore”. It was not so much a question of taste but that of choice.

I really like my bread and have so for three years. I could easily eat four, albeit small, loaves a week. Bread was my staple. For the most part I didn’t feel bad about this, it was chock full with all sorts of goodies from pumpkin and flax seeds to protein abundant millet and fibre filled kamut. But ever so often my old fears would catch up to me and suggest I was playing with fire, that I would, for example, balloon up to an inconceivable weight. It was irrational—I had been eating this way for three years and my clothes still fit—but lurking beneath my seemingly unquenchable desire for bread was this fear of no return. 

That said, my fears never really took hold because, paradoxically, making bread also provided me with a measure of safety. It gave me the gift of routine, ritual and structure. It is not that I need those things in my life but they were a leftover from childhood. As such, they had become habit. They were my default safeguards from a time when I lacked a sense of security and trusta seemingly intransigent behavioural pattern that I cling to despite the changes that have occurred.

My mother starter calls out for me from the fridge, she needs replenishing. She has but a cup of herself left.

I add:
2 ⅓ cup kamut flour
1 cup water

Knead for about 5 minutes.

I feel nascent life beneath my hands as I massage the starter, rekindling that which was asleep. I push and pull, rotate, push and pull. I contemplate my last words.  What am I really trying to say?

For most of my life I was governed by a need for safety. At first it was based on the environment but through introspection (and good therapy) I came to understand how one cannot feel secure in their surroundings if they do not feel safe inside. Years of working on myself have created a strong inner sanctuary: I feel safe in who I am, where I am going and how I am doing it.

But sometimes, and I speak in general terms here, regardless of how much work one has done, there can be a small part of us that is unwilling to change its perception. Hence, a part of me didn’t want to like the bread for fear I would lose control. And, another part, liked making bread for the twice weekly routine. 

I finish kneading the starter and cover it with a towel/plastic wrap for 8 -10 hours. A starter needs little massaging as its main purpose is to incorporate oxygen. Bread dough, however, requires about 15 minutes. This not only develops the protein strands of which provides the structure for it to rise into but, as a double bonus, tones my biceps. Which, of course, is of primal importance if we believe what the celeb mags tell us.

Bread making, then, is both my safety and my fear. Regardless of the fact that I feel an internal sense of safety there is still a part of me that wants routine and ritual to guarantee this safety.  What this exercise taught me is that this fearful part needs to come out in the open and see times have changed: I am no longer a little girl living in chaos.

The question I now ask is can I change like the bread dough that transforms beneath my hands? Have I built enough structure/safety to allow my fears to relax? Can this small part of me that still fears life trust that I, as an adult, can take care of myself and be safe in who I am without relying on structure and rigidity?

The answer to these questions, funny enough, is answered by the original one: did I like the bread? I did. The bread is good, tasty in fact, but I’ve changed: I no longer need it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bread Chronicles II - To Like or Not to Like

 Today… I make bread.
Forgive me if it sounds somewhat momentous. As written before I’ve made bread twice a week for over three years but this time is different. Today I revisit the sourdough. What makes it such a big deal is that it was the last thing I ate before getting sick five weeks ago. The memory of both the bread and the illness is not pleasant. I did attempt two commercial yeast breads during this time but they just didn’t please the palate. And, while I have hopes this revisiting will be a success there is also something else lurking in my barely concealed subconscious: maybe I don’t want to like it anymore.

Day One: Scoop out 2/3 cup of the refrigerated starter and knead in 2 ⅓ cups flour and 1 cup water. Set aside under a plastic/towel wrap for about 8 hours. Knead the remainder of the starter, cover tightly and put back in the fridge. 

I have a long, somewhat complicated relationship with food. I have been on and off diets from my mid teens, done cleanses, been gluten, dairy and sugar free and vegan, tried eating everything I wanted and, alternatively, severely limited my desires, counted calories and how many steps I need to walk before burning off the last cookie, and created rules that said when and where I could eat. I’ve done therapy on this issue and read a lot of books, even attended an OA meeting a few times. All this and the most I have been is twenty pounds over my natural weight and a few pounds under. As you can see it wasn’t a physical health problem.

After almost forty years of this, including fifteen of in-depth reflection, I feel most of the dark corners of my food issues have had the mold scoured from them. I know they have little to do with the actual victuals, but rather a childhood of poor boundaries and wavering self esteem. I’ve worked hard at bringing these inner conflicts to light and also in creating a healthy vision of who I am today. Still, I know there are a few more shadows in the pantry to be revealed. Hence, my question above: to like or not to like the bread.

Exploring one’s shadows is a bit like unveiling the hidden processes that occur in bread making. In my last blog, I talked about how amylase breaks down the starch in flour to produce the sugars needed to feed the yeast spores. This enzyme begins to work whenever flour and water come together and is also the reason why French bread tastes so good. If you look at the ingredients of a typical French loaf, for example, you will note just three: white flour, water and salt. What gives this bread its lovely taste is not so much what goes in but the extra long leavening time. Starch tastes bland; sugar tastes good. The more starch breaks down the more sugar is available and the better the bread will taste. However, there are limits to this formula. Break it down too much and there will be nothing left to hold up your bread. Flat bread is great but not when you are looking for a puffy loaf.

Day One Continued: There are several ways to create the extra leavening time with bread and hence a better taste. Today, just after I prepare the starter, I blend the following into a small roughly shaped ball:

About 2 cups flour
Up to 1 cup corn meal
Up to 1 cup millet
½  tbsp sea salt (slows down the fermentation process)
Just enough water
Place in a bowl, lightly wrap and set aside for 8 - 12 hours on your shelf or 48 within the fridge.

Adventuring into one’s shadows also takes time and, like bread, the more time you take the healthier (sweeter?) you become. However, once again, like bread, if you spend too long in the shadows without breaks or gratitude for all that is bright in your life, you start to lose your foundation and the fortitude to keep going. The cliché is true: balance is good.

Day Two: The starter has nicely risen to twice its volume while the flour ball sits there, as expected, with bland expression. Just you wait, I say, your time is coming. I play like an amateur chopsticker with two knives and separate my flour ball into small pieces. 

Blend in:  1 tbsp olive oil; 1 tbsp molasses; 1 tbsp flax seed; ½ tbsp sea salt; ½  -1 cup toasted sesame and pumpkin seeds

Add: Starter mix

Knead: Add in water and flour as needed until I have a lovely silken larva.

Rise: Cover loosely in a greased bowl with a plastic/towel wrap and set aside 2-3 hours until about almost double in size. 

Sometimes I create the extra leavening time by letting the first rise be by an open window on a cool night or even in the fridge. Similarly, that is the method I recently used for my food issues. Up until about two or three years ago, I was active in my quest into why food and body image have such an interesting hold on me. Then I stopped. I put the issue in the fridge, so to speak, to ferment behind doors and take its own sweet time in coming to light. And once again the parallels are apt. Too long in the fridge, over 30 hours, and the bread won’t rise as well; too long without a good session of self reflection and heck, you stagnate too. It took this virus/hormonal shift I wrote about last week, a loss of ten pounds due to lingering nausea, and a disinterest in baking to propel the issue back out of the fridge. Enough leavening time for me, I guess.

Second rise: Remove from bowl, cut in half, and shape into loaves by flattening and then rolling into a loaf. Slightly dampen the flattened dough before rolling so it sticks together better. Sit in a warmish, draft free place for 2-3 hours.

Preheat oven to 425° with a pan of water to make it all steamy.

Bake: Reduce heat and bake at 350° (depends on your oven) for 15 minutes. Take out the pan of water and continue for another 10. Take loafs out of pans and bake for another 5 or so until they sound hollow when tapped on their bottoms.

Eat: Wait an hour or so before slicing. 

And now you are all hopefully curious as to which wish was fulfilled? Did I like or not like the bread? Were my shadows exposed or was there more mold to clean out? Was I refrigerated long enough or did I need more leavening time? Will Nancy ever find who stole her client list and gave it to the Hardy Boys?

To be continued…

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bread Chronicles I - Grieving the Mother (Starter)

I threw away my sourdough (aka mother or seed) starter three weeks ago. She, my mother starter, that is, had been with me three years. There were some misgivings about just flushing her down the toilet but she smelled off and I just as soon have her gone. I was in semi-recovery from a combination stomach virus and hormonal shift and while everything smelled off the last thing I ate before tossing the cookies was my homemade sourdough bread. For days I laid blame on the “mother” and all she wrought until sense came back. If she was truly off, I finally realized, the bread wouldn’t have risen and the oven heat would have killed the bacteria. Still, it felt good clearing out the fridge and anything that could make me feel better at that point had higher ratings than a three year old relationship. Hmm, maybe that is why I am still single. Regardless, today I start anew. 

[Note: This sourdough starter is adapted from Peter Reinhart’s recipe.]

Day One. Briskly mix together ¼ cup water and 3.5 tbsp flour. (I use Kamut). Cover loosely with a plastic and towel wrap and set in a draft free place. Whisk two to three times a day for 48 hours.

Funny how starting anew with my mother starter parallels my relationship with my birth mother. I’ve written about her before but to summarize she died of pneumonia thirty-four years ago, the complications of an alcohol saturated liver. I was angry with her for many years and didn’t really start grieving until just under two decades ago. Even then, grief was interlaced with bouts of rage and it’s only been this past twelve months that things have really shifted. I wrote about that shift last fall and since then I feel her presence on a regular basis. It’s like having the mother I never knew but in retrospect was always there. It’s a tremendous comfort, a support I lean on most every day. So throwing mom, the mother starter that is, down the toilet has a certain symbolic resonance: like tossing out old resentments and what-ifs. Time to get on with life. 

A sourdough starter begins very simply. As stated above, it’s just flour and water. Sure I could use pineapple juice or cheat and use another person’s starter to birth mine but I like the purity of the two basic ingredients. But even that is a fallacy: flour is not so pure.  With naturally occurring yeast and bacterial spores, flour, when mixed with water, produces an enzyme called amylase (also present in human saliva). Amylase breaks down starch to eventually produce glucose and fructose. These sugars feed the yeast spores and voila, the starter grows.

Forty eight hours after first blending the flour and water and whisking several times in between I lift the wrap. Several tiny bubbles dapple the surface, an increase, however small, from the last time I looked. It is tentative these first few days of birth for it is the time when things can go wrong. You don’t need a sterile kitchen for this process but still, “bad” bacteria can enter the scene and wreck havoc. It’s okay (though not great) if you don’t find bubbles after it sits for however long but anytime your starter smells off, toss and start again. I sniff. Relief fills me. There is no smell except what one would expect from flour. 

Time to add two tablespoons each of water and flour and whisk again.  

Day  5. I open the wrap and my lovely starter is frothy and strewn with a multitude of miniscule bubbles. I hum Don Ho’s theme song.

I add 5 tbsp flour and 3 tbsp water, whisk and set aside again. 

It’s important to keep up with the whisking process. Good bacteria is nurtured on good air circulation. Effective wound management works the same way but it also reminds me of the grieving process. 

For too many years I disallowed thoughts of mom. There was no funeral or memorial service (she didn’t want one) and my family just seemed to stop talking about her after she died. It was like one day she was there and the next not. I was a young woman filled with confused and inchoate emotions. I teetered between angry outbursts, depression, hyperactivity and inconsistent moods.  Although I didn’t realize it back then I was angry at her for dying but I was also enraged that she wasn’t fully there for me when she was alive. But this knowledge was all in retrospect. I had no real understanding of this nor of the grief that lay below. Instead, through naïve ignorance, I let the grief stagnant. 

The grieving process needs to be aired. Not everyone, of course, grieves the same but regardless of how it is done—counselling, talking to friends, artwork or journaling—it needs to be expressed. Grief must mix with the air in the room, be free to expand and fill in the cracks left by that which was lost. Without this process we risk, just like the mother starter I make today, stunting our growth, becoming stale or, worst of all, souring. 

Day 6: The starter has grown twice its size and appears light and foamy. The recipe calls to discard half and mix in 7 tbsp flour with 3 tbsp water. Use your judgment on this. I bake a lot of bread, about twice a week.  So I blend more than half my burgeoning starter with about 9 tbsp flour. I also like a drier consistency with which to work. I add less water so I can knead rather than whisk it. I set it aside overnight.

When I finally started the grieving process I had lots to work through. If we don’t grieve a major event, the small ones, the ones that occur in everyone’s daily life, compound it.  Anything sad or even reminiscent of the blues looms large and forbidding. Many of us just don’t go there and put up a façade of always thinking “happy thoughts” or erect barriers to avoid getting close to anyone again. But the grief process or mourning needs to be done. And although mourning an age-old event can sometimes feel like unwrapping an ornately decorated box with complicated ties and intricate folds only to find another below; and another below that, it is not as tedious or ominous as it sounds. In fact, although at times heart wrenching, grieving fills one with wonder at the complexity of human emotion and the innate, but often hidden desire for stability and safety. Of course, I didn’t always feel that way, it is more in retrospect, but these last fifteen years have helped me mature in a way I never would without the grieving process. 

Day 7: My last prep work is complete. I blend the starter one more time, cover tightly with plastic, and set in the fridge. Tomorrow, after a month long hiatus, I make bread again.

The grief process has allowed me to become my own mother starter. Like the wondrous fermented blend of flour and water I, too, am now more prepared to birth new life into whatever metaphoric loaf of bread I choose to create. Stay tuned.