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The Bread Diaries

The Bread Diaries

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I saw a meme the other day that absolutely hypnotized me. It was Mary Poppins floating away with her parrot-head umbrella and the words “So Done” captioned below. I keep watching that clip obsessively. I’ve never wanted to be Mary Poppins so badly in my whole life. These quarantine days seem to have no purpose or rhythm, one blurring into the next. A friend of mine heard the tornado sirens going off this afternoon and thought, is it Wednesday? Is it noon? The answer was in fact “no” on both fronts. It was Monday at 4:30pm and the sirens were telling him to get out of his quarantine-induced mental fog and get his ass into the basement. But while I chuckle at his plight, I simultaneously deeply relate. 

Photos by Rebecca Tien

All this is to say, a month ago I found myself looking for some sort of structure and routine to ground me. Seeing an offer for sourdough starter on a Facebook discussion forum, I thought, well, why not that? In a fascinating turn of events, bread making has become somewhat of a national cliche – a corona-era hobby that has caught on so rapidly that finding flour on a supermarket shelf is as elusive as seeing the fabled Brigadoon. You know the fad has hit a particular level in our collective conscience when even Trevor Noah references the craze in a punchline of one of his acerbic jokes. But a couple of mail-ordered 50 lb bags of flour, endless blog posts, instructional videos and step-by-step how-to IG posts later, I can whip up a loaf or two of perfectly oven-sprung, holey, tangy loaves in minutes. Ok, if you know anything about sourdough, that’s a lie. The process is more like 24 hours, but I can hack it.

The act of baking bread is a full-on sensory experience. My daughter loves to take the cap off my starter and take deep inhalations of its sour tang. I diligently observe my starter to see just how bubbly it is and whether it has doubled in size, finding incredible satisfaction in stretching out the dough to the breaking point and then folding it in a repeated sequence – streeeeeetch and fold, streeeeeetch and fold. The whole house is intoxicated by the heady aroma of a loaf cooling on the counter-top while we endure the almost impossible hour-long wait before we can cut that first perfect crusty heel slice. I call it baker’s prerogative that I’m usually the one who gets to eat it.

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As a kid, my Mom baked golden yeasted loaves of whole wheat often, timing it so that I could punch out the dough after school to release my pent-up frustrations of the day on the forgiving mound of warm dough. I come by my fascination for bread-making honestly. But the thought of attempting such a long and multi-stepped process myself seemed daunting and like an utterly unrealistic time sink. So I guess there is some blessing in the coronavirus after all. It gave me all the time and space to pursue an endeavor I would have otherwise dismissed until some future date on my timeline – like maybe when the kids went off to college, or at least to bed peacefully without nightly epic battles. 

You would think that suddenly being a simultaneous mom/schoolteacher/freelancer would have left me feeling like my plate was more than full, but honestly making bread has been my little respite, my pause-the-crazy excuse to re-center: 2:00 pm to start the levain and measure the  flour and water for the autolyse; 6:00 pm to stretch and fold; 6:30 pm stretch and fold; and 7 pm stretch and fold. I may not have named my starter yet, but I feed it as diligently as my 7-year old feeds her pet Tomagotchi. See what I mean? Purpose.

I won’t bore you with the scientific details or try to explain the difference between a starter and a levain (there is a thin line there, but it exists). I won’t expound on einkorn and the best brand of kosher sea salt, or what a high-hydration dough is, and why it is a good thing. I’ll leave that to the experts. But I will share with you the pure joy of going through the 24-hour process and then slicing open the bread for that moment of truth – a web of bubbles like a chunk of sea sponge washed up on a beach, letting you know this one is a good one. Against my most basic instincts, there is no instant gratification here, just a quiet waiting. And then the eating. My husband and daughter are in the jam and honey camp, but my son and I are more purists in our consumption. We prefer butter, just butter, globbing into every nook and bubble or better yet, slathered on day-old toast, dripping through the holes and down our fingers as we take delicate nibbles of the crispy flaky, tangy, chewy bits of heaven.

For all the jokes about jumping on the sourdough wagon, I understand the impulse for normalcy and rhythm. Right now, we are all in that mythological liminal stage, a rite of passage we must pass through as our society and our place in it tilt towards some unknown future. We stand in the eye of the hurricane, tolerating the ambiguity and disorientation (with varying degrees of success) that comes with the uncertainty of this place and time. In that fog of unknowing, it is soothing to find a routine that keeps my feet still touching the earth. 

Watch the video – we took some time to see how the bread is made.

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