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Patience Bread

The subtle art of sourdough

I am learning how to bake sourdough bread; my first realization is that it takes time. Sourdough especially takes time. It takes time to collect microorganisms from the air and let them grow. It takes time for the dough to rise and ferment. Hours, days. My sister-in-law asked if I would like to learn how to make bread, she could show me. I was enjoying a warm, delicious, melt-in-your-mouth slice from a loaf that she had just pulled out of the oven. With my mouth still full, I jumped at the chance. I asked her what day would work and blocked out about three hours on my calendar. I figured this would be about right to get to her house, learn how to bake bread and come home with a fresh loaf for dinner. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

I’m starting to learn that a lot of things in life don’t work that way. Some things can’t be scheduled into neat blocks on the daily calendar. Some things take time. When I arrived at her house she proudly showed me her sourdough starter in a small glass jar. “I put some starter in here for you to take home,” she said. She presented it to me like a beautiful gift, something she had worked so hard to make over months and months, maybe even years. I looked at the thick, bubbly, beige paste and thanked her with some hesitation; certainly not as graciously has I should have. I had some reservations about how this paste would turn into that mouthwatering bread…and how soon. She laughed and set the starter aside.

First we mix some starter with water until it’s dissolved. Easy enough. But wait, you can’t just use cold water from the tap, because there is chlorine in the water, you need to put some filtered water in a vessel and let it sit, preferably overnight until the chlorine evaporates. Ugh. Step 1, I’m already frustrated. Luckily she had anticipated my desire to do more than watch water out-gas, she had some prepared already and we continued. Step 2, add some flour to the mixture and stir it up, make sure all the flour and water and starter are thoroughly blended together. Good action step. I can do this. Now let that mixture sit for 12 hours to ferment and grow. Ugh, more waiting. Luckily, my sister-in-law knows me well and again she had anticipated my frustration, my desire to move things along. She had prepared a bowl the night before that we could work with. Step 3, add more flour and water and a pinch of salt. Shape into loaves. This step is much easier said than done, it takes a certain technique to fold the dough just right. Guess what happens next? Baking? No, of course not, you must let it rest. The “bench rest” it is called, I found out later from the chirpy You Tube baker lady. Finally, finally it is time to bake it. Of course even that takes time. Preheating-baking-uncovering-baking. I am familiar with this process and the kitchen starts to fill with a wonderful aroma, so I don’t mind the waiting this time, I am close to the home stretch. Voila! The bread, if you are lucky, comes out looking something like a loaf of bread. That doesn’t always happen. “Don’t get smug,” my sister-in-law warns, it doesn’t always turn out this way. Don’t cut corners, bread doesn’t like to be rushed. Then, another two hours to let the loaf cool before it can be cut without smushing down into a pancake. Talk about an exercise in patience.

The longer the dough is left to rest in between steps the larger and lighter it grows. The more patience, the better the bread will taste. Now that I have taken a step back to look at where I am and what I want to do with my time left here on earth among these beautiful micro and macro organisms, I am learning this is true for so many things in life. Creation takes time and patience. One must pay attention to what is happening in the bowl but not necessarily mess with it. Patience is a skill I had lost, maybe one I had never acquired. I am working to reclaim it. Even writing takes patience. Patience to let the words come, patience to let the emotions float to the top. The words cannot be plucked out by shear will when the alarm sounds and it’s time to write. They must be coaxed out. And so I sit and let those emotions and stories come, let them ferment and rise, let them feed and grow until they are about to overflow from the jar and run all over the counter. Once they have been fed and given room to grow, there is no stopping the process. But it still takes the attention of the baker to form it, stretch it, package it into a loaf, to bake it and share it and finally teach someone else how to make bread.

What a beautiful gift my sister-in-law gave me that day, not just the jar of bubbly paste but the gift of patience. Patience is always rewarded. Patience leaves us with a feeling of calm, a feeling of being whole; patience lets our spirit grow to fill the vessel. Give it time. The dough wants to be bread, those little microorganisms want to be bread. But they need time to incorporate the air around them and make the environment their own. 

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