A meditation on bread baking

A meditation on bread baking

I’ve always thought it was kind of magic. All you need is some water, flour, salt and yeast, plus some patience and some heat, and you have fresh bread – wonderful bread – and food for hungry mouths.

I grew up on homemade bread. Both my mother and my grandmother were avid bread bakers, and one of my fondest memories is of biting into fresh-out-of-the-oven bread that has been buttered and sprinkled with a little sugar. There’s nothing quite like it.

Connected through history

Whenever I bake bread, I think about the women in my family. All of them – especially those I’ve never met. I feel we’re connected through the kneading, mirroring each other’s motions through time and generations.

There is archaeological evidence of breadmaking from almost 15,000 years ago – 3,000 years before we discovered agriculture. Even before we learned to grow our own crops, we were making bread from grains we found in the wild. Breadmaking is almost intuitive.

These first breads were unleavened – flatbreads baked on flat rocks. But it wasn’t long until we noticed the yeast that surrounded us and unlocked the secret to harvesting it. We learned how to use it to give our bread texture, lift and a little tang.

Meditative practice

Baking by hand can be quite calming. The process sneaks in under your skin and fills your head with big thoughts, which you, in turn, can let sail away. The thoughts drift as you knead and knead and knead. Soon, your mind is quiet. Sure, it’s hard work – dough is heavy, and kneading takes time – but the rhythmical movement, the magic happening beneath your fingers, it’s all worth it.

Most bread doughs are initially quite wet and sticky; sometimes so sticky that you can’t imagine them turning into anything but gloop. But little by little, the dough becomes tighter, sticks to itself more, sticks less to you. The reward is a firm, smooth and beautiful ball – and it’s alive. You can feel it. There’s something about its little spring, or the smoothness, or the slight warmth under your hands – it has become something else. Something living, breathing and in need of proper treatment.

Then there’s the waiting. The rise, the proof, the baking – time for reflection and consideration. I wonder when I will be fully formed?

Breadmaking as art

The more you bake, the more you learn to know the dough. You learn to know if it is too tight or too loose, to heavy or too weak. You can experiment with adding sweeteners to feed the yeast, or bake with cold water to develop more flavour.

At its simplest, baking bread is just a way to make food. At its best, it’s an edible artform.

Here are two of Amelia’s favourite bread recipes: matpakkebrød – Norwegian-style everyday bread – and soup bread with herbs and cheese.