Saturday, May 30, 2015

Learning to learn

I've been baking Artisan 5 minute homemade bread for a couple of years now. Unlike writing poetry, or blog posts for that matter, baking bread gets me out of my head and into the real world. The basic recipe I've followed involves mixing yeast, water, flour and salt, letting the chemicals work their magic to make the dough rise and then baking the risen dough, usually in the cloche in the picture. Everyone at home says they like the result and even I've found it difficult to screw up.

bread book, cloche and bread
bread book, cloche and bread
Photo by J. Harrington

Well, today I entered my next phase of bread baking and I've already messed up one of the fundamental steps. The birthday present of a sourdough crock and starter arrived yesterday. My Better Half, who hates to see surprises spoiled, gave it to me today as an early present because the instructions said to feed the starter within 24 hours of arrival. I opened the jar, followed directions, and had the beginnings of my starter happily feeding and bubbling away over night.

fed sourdough starter
fed sourdough starter
Photo by J. Harrington

This morning, before I had finished my first cup of coffee (which may have been a major contributor to my ineptness), I moved on to the next feeding phase, dividing the starter in half and adding more flour and water. Unfortunately, I had the correct the steps but in the wrong sequence. I added the flour and water before I divided the starter. It is no more possible to unmix flour and water from wet dough than it is to push toothpaste back into the tube.

I've already learned some valuable lessons from the process, and for me that's about as important as the crumb and crust of the bread. No, it's not to avoid undertaking important things before I've had at least one cup of coffee. I already know better than that but don't always listen to myself until I've finished my first cup of coffee. I relearned when I make a mistake to just keep going and make the most of what's left. The world isn't going to end if I have to start all over with fresh starter. In fact, I could even try making my own starter, which I'll probably do some day anyhow. I realized that many organic processes function well within a reasonable range of tolerances. I relearned that, as they say, "the proof is in the pudding," or, in the bread, as the case may be. I reinforced the old "if at first you don't succeed..." The starter will live happily in its crock, in a corner of the refrigerator for some time.

sourdough's home
sourdough's home
Photo by J. Harrington

I'm looking forward to seeing and tasting how the first loaves turn out. I want to see if the starter and resulting bread improve over time. I want to explore other approaches to using and making sourdough as a way to get more familiar with my need to trust the process and let go of some levels of control. I'll be sure to let you know how it all turns out, good or bad. I'm now involved in an organic system with a feedback loop or two. I should have done this years ago. Bread is for real. Unfortunately, I managed to spoil yet another of my Better Half's surprises when we were out shopping and I started looking for a Danish dough wisk. She told me to forget it, she had ordered one for my birthday. Sigh, sorry dear! I'll act surprised?

The Words Under the Words

By Naomi Shihab Nye 

for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem 

My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes,   
the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.   
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them   
covering my head like cool prayers.

My grandmother’s days are made of bread,   
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car   
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,   
lost to America. More often, tourists,   
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.   
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,   
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.

My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.   
She knows the spaces we travel through,   
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short   
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband’s coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.   
They will plant themselves. We will all die.

My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.   
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,   
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,   
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,   
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.” 


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