Contemplative Photography & Reflections

Zen and the Art of Bread Making

Making homemade bread is one of my favorite pastimes during the cold months.

There is much to love about it, but you can’t be in a hurry. The process takes up to four hours, although almost all of it is rising and baking time. I usually make bread when I am housebound for an afternoon. Pajama days (my favorite days!) are perfect for making bread.

The process of making bread is a rich sensory experience and an opportunity for practicing mindfulness. Kneading the bread involves working the dough with your own two hands – pushing and folding it over, again and again – and noticing how the consistency changes until it’s just right. The comforting aroma of the bread rising and baking is the stuff memories are made of. And it’s all about warmth, too. The yeast requires warmth to come alive and do its job – and then a hot oven for baking. The whole house feels warmer and cozier on bread-making days.

The first time I made yeasted bread, I thought I did it wrong. I expected the kind of light and puffy loaves I always bought from the grocery store in plastic bags. Homemade bread is denser, more rustic, and more wholesome than store-bought bread. I can pronounce and identify every ingredient used in baking bread at home, which is not the case with store-bought bread.

I have a few favorite bread recipes but will highlight my most basic one that I use for our everyday bread. It is excellent for sandwiches, toast, and dipping in the fancy olive oils and balsamics that my mom has introduced us to recently. Over the years, I have tweaked and renamed the original recipe (formerly “Oat Bread with Maple Syrup”) from The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas.


Multi-Grain Oat Bread

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup milk (I use Almond Dream or Almond Breeze)
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats (do not use quick oats)
  • 1 package (2 1/4 tsp.) dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup or agave nectar
  • 2 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 cup seed and grains mixture (I use oat berries, wheat flakes, rye flakes, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, millet, flax seeds, and poppy seeds) *This is optional but highly recommended; you can make your own mixture using whatever seeds you have on hand, or use King Arthur’s Harvest Grains Blend
  • 2 Tbs. butter or margarine, melted and cooled
  • 3 cups unbleached white flour
  • 3 cups whole wheat bread flour (you can substitute whole wheat flour in a pinch)

Procedure:

Heat the water and milk together until scalding (when tiny bubbles form around the edges), and pour the liquid over the oats in a large bowl. Let soak for an hour. 

Sprinkle the yeast over the lukewarm oats, and stir. Then stir in the maple syrup, salt, seed and grains mixture, melted butter, and white flour. Be sure to spoon rather than scoop the flour into the measuring cup. The batter will be thick.

 
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and leave it in a warm (100°F at most), draft-free place to rise for about an hour. A “warm place” could be inside the car on a warm day or in your oven; heat the oven for one minute on the lowest temperature setting, and then turn off the heat. I like to put the bowl next to the wood stove.


After an hour, stir down the batter, and add the whole wheat flour one cup at a time, stirring it in well. When the dough is too stiff for a spoon, turn it out onto a well-floured board, sprinkle more flour on top, and begin kneading. Keep adding sprinkles of flour as long as the dough is sticky, but not past that point. Knead until it is elastic and firm (the consistency of an earlobe) and responds quickly to your push.

Imagine love and warmth traveling through your hands into the bread dough! Making bread is a labor of love! Surrender and be fully present to the gentle rhythm. Feel grateful that you and your loved ones have bread to eat. This is an opportunity for mindfulness meditation.

Divide the dough in half, and shape into two loaves.

Put the loaves into greased loaf pans or on greased baking sheets, and cover them loosely with a kitchen towel. Leave them in a warm place to rise for just under an hour, or until about doubled in size. (When I let the loaves rise in a warm oven, I remove them after 40 minutes and then heat the oven to 350°F.)

If the surface feels “crusty,” the loaves have risen too long, and the bread will sink when it is put in the oven. In this case, it’s well worth it to punch down the loaves, knead them briefly, shape back into loaves, and let them rise again. (An extra rising won’t take as long, so keep an eye on them.)


Bake the loaves in a preheated 350°F oven for about 45-50 minutes. Check them every now and then. If they’re browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over them. When done, they should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom crust. 


Remove the loaves from the pans, and cool them on racks before slicing. Unconsumed portions should be frozen within two days. I automatically place one sliced loaf in a gallon-sized ziplock freezer bag and freeze for later use. 


Here are my two other favorite, time-tested, yeasted bread recipes:

Herb and Onion Bread

San Francisco Firehouse Bread with the following modifications:

  • 2 tablespoons yeast (instead of 2 packages)
  • 1/4 cup warm water (instead of 1/2 cup)
  • 1 2/3 cups milk and 2/3 cup dry milk powder (instead of evaporated milk)
  • 3 tablespoons honey (instead of sugar)
  • 2 loaf pans (instead of coffee cans)


If you make any of these recipes, I hope your bread turns out great and that you enjoy the process!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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