By Rose Harding
Making bread is an homage to the infinite. It seems strange to give the humble loaf of bread such reverence, but it does not go misplaced. Does not the extraordinary live within the everyday? The crumb of bread is linked to a rhythm of growth that cannot be unhinged. From seed to loaf there is a history of dependence of the cycles of the earth, the warmth and humidity of a room, the gentleness and strength of the hand, the texture of the flour, the temperature of the water, and the brininess of the salt. Breadmaking is within the whole body; you must have patience and pay attention, learn to follow your intuition for when the grain is ready for harvest, and when the dough is ready to be baked. There are no mistakes here, only things you would do differently next time.
Within the following words you will find a recipe, a process for making bread. Take this as a guideline, not the way to achieve perfection, but to achieve something. I hope that once you read it, you will bake a loaf of bread. I doubt you will plant your own wheat and grind it into flour, but I hope you will take a moment to honor the three elemental ingredients of bread – flour, water, and salt – and to have respect for their infinite power and potential.
Earth and Light
To plant wheat, you must begin by examining the soil in which you wish to plant. Pick it up in your palm, rub it between your fingertips, note its texture and color. Breathe in its deep, rich smell; this is a small pleasure, so revel in the wealth that is good soil. Be sure to watch how the light crosses the space you wish to plant; if the light reaches it from the East or West for the better part of the day, it is a good place. As with most things that grow, all they need is space and light. Just like breadmaking, gardening is a process of trial and error. You can always try again. Be patient and forgive yourself when something does not turn out how you had hoped.
Weather that is comfortable for humans is also good for wheat. Plant winter wheat in early autumn and give your seeds enough time to sprout before the first frost, usually about four weeks. Prepare your soil by tilling and raking until it is loose and gives in to your weight with ease. Think of your seeds and the work they will have to do to climb through the soil and reach more light. Make it easy on them. Broadcast your grain across an evenly raked bed of soil letting the seeds fall where they may. Cover the seed with more soil, estimating that each seed is planted deep enough for the surface of the soil to reach the second knuckle of your index finger. Water the seeds until the soil smells like earth after a rainy day. After you water your seeds take a deep drink of water yourself. Hydration is important.
Watch as your grain transforms. If you observe unwanted weeds as the seeds sprout, remove them. As the wheat grows, its shade will kill most weeds, but it is good to be vigilant in these early stages of transformation to ensure that your seedlings have enough room to grow. As it grows the wheat will reach for the sky, and it will look like the tallest grass you’ve ever seen. Listen as the wind passes through, seize the moment and hear the rustling of leaves dancing in a breeze.
As the days pass the wheat will begin to flower and change in color. It will turn golden and sparkle in the evening sun, the flowers will turn into seed heads and, eventually, it will be time to harvest. When the seed head begins to droop under the weight of its seeds, try one of the grains: if it is hard and snaps between your teeth it is time to harvest. Remove the seed heads whichever way you see fit, whether it’s by hand, blade, or machine.
Take your seed heads and begin to thresh. You can do this by rubbing the chaff away from the grains in your hands. Once the chaff has been removed, pass the grains through a sieve with holes large enough to let grains fall through but leave larger pieces of chaff behind. When this process is complete begin winnowing by pouring the grain from one container to another while a breeze is blowing. Continue to do this until the grains are clean and remove any remaining chaff by hand.
Before you is the yield of your grain harvest. Take a moment to be thankful for what it took to get here. Each seed you have harvested and cleaned contains multitudes. They can grow into more grain, eaten as wheat berries or farrow, or ground to make innumerable foods out of flour. When grinding your flour, you rely on the speed and pressure of the stones as they move to crush your grain into a fine powder. In most cases you will be using an electric or manual mill to grind your grain. Once you have filled a bowl with flour, dip your hand into it and marvel at how what was once a seed is now soft and coats your hand with ease.
Bread in its fundamental form is a mixture of flour and water activated by a leavener and flavored with salt. You can create your own leaven by combining equal weights flour and filtered water into a loose dough and waiting for it to capture the wild yeast in a room. Feed it with more flour and water every day. It is ready for baking when a small spoonful of the leaven floats on water. This yeast is a living organism that is all around us. When making this leaven you are capturing yeast that is unique to the place it is made, thus imparting a unique flavor and texture to your bread.
The following recipe is very general in its form, and this is to emphasize that you should learn to follow your intuition when making bread. Things to pay attention to when shaping a dough are hydration, growth, and gluten strength. To form your dough, combine flour and warm water until it creates a sticky mass but is not overly wet. Add your leaven and salt the dough. You will need to adjust these measurements based on how humid your kitchen is or how finely your flour is milled. Begin with a ratio of three parts flour to one part water and add more of one or the other as necessary. If you are following this ratio, add a quarter cup of leaven and one tablespoon of kosher salt. This dough is alive: take a moment to smell its earthy, yeasty aroma and wish it well on its journey. Leave your dough mixture to ferment until it has doubled in size. During the fermentation periodically, work the dough by kneading or stretching it. You are building its gluten structure so that it becomes strong enough to hold its shape. The dough is strong enough when it does not immediately break when stretched thinly. Shape the dough by cupping it in your hands and rotating it in a circle, and you should see the surface of the dough tighten. Cover in a lightly oiled bowl and continue to ferment until doubled in size. Shape it into a loaf, place it in a colander lined with a floured cloth and allow to rest again until it has doubled and is ready to bake. At this time the dough should be smooth and feel soft and firm like a cat’s belly.
Your shaped dough is ready to be baked when it has doubled in size and springs back when touched. In order to bake your bread, you need a very hot oven. This can be a wood fire oven lovingly tended or your home oven turned to its hottest setting. When your oven is hot enough, carefully place your dough onto your cooking vessel and be sure to flour the bottom of the dough before removing it from the shaping basket. At this time cut a mark in the surface of the dough if you wish. This is not necessary, but it is an opportunity to give your loaf an identity; feel free to let it run wild if you wish. Bake until the bread is dark brown in color and sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove the bread from the oven and allow to cool completely before eating. Gently press the outside crust and listen as it crackles under pressure. Smell how sweet it is now that it has transformed through time and heat. Tear or slice and eat with butter.
Rose Harding is an artist and writer based in Bloomington, Indiana. In her work she attempts to reconcile with her corporeal form through video, found object sculpture and eating well.
Rose Harding, bread multitudes, 2018, 4″ x 6″, pen.