by Les Saidel - April, 2013
Baking means different things to different people. To some it conjures up a mental picture of a quaint grandmother humming to herself in a morning-sun filled cottage kitchen as she calmly puts the finishing touches to a pecan pie. To others it is reminiscent of hard physical labour, someone sweating and cursing as they hand knead dough in a stiflingly hot bakery. To yet others it symbolizes their livelihood, something they do, day in and day out, every day of their lives.
Whatever baking means to you, whether the general feeling is a positive one or negative, whether you are a proficient baker or don't know how to boil water, I want to try introduce you to a totally new concept called meditative baking, or how to use baking as a form of meditation to help you relax and unwind from the stresses of your day or week.
Although baking does involve some mental acumen, it is predominantly a physical activity. If you want to bake well and consistently you cannot be a complete mental incompetent. You need to know how to do basic math and you need some kind of instinct to recognize when something has gone wrong. However the mental portion of baking is only a small percentage of the total process. The majority of the baking process is a hands-on, physical activity, often repetitive.
Personally speaking, one the biggest adjustments I had to make when I moved from the world of hi-tech (computer programming) to professional baking was suddenly not having to use my brain the entire day, applying non-stop concentration to intricate mind processes that I jokingly referred to as mental juggling. As a newbie professional baker I suddenly began to discover hours upon hours each day during which my hands were occupied but my mind was left free to wander.
For someone who has delved into the intricacies of assembly language programming and Perl scripting for over a quarter century, it may seem that repetitively shaping thousands of rolls and breads all day, every day would be a major let down. It was, until I discovered the concept of meditative baking.
Baking is totally unlike working on a factory production line, for example assembling circuit boards. The material you are dealing with is not a piece of inert silicon, it is alive and has an energy of its own. Anyone who thought that handling bread dough was like handling children's "play-dough" or plastic putty could not be more mistaken. Plastic putty, if left overnight in a plastic bag on the table will be exactly the same the following morning. Bread dough on the other hand is alive! Anyone who doubts this statement is welcome to leave a bowl filled to the brim with bread dough overnight, next to the bag of plastic putty on the table. This unfortunate individual is going to be spending at least 10 minutes the following morning scraping a sticky mess off the floor.
Bread dough is alive! It is teeming with millions of microorganisms and has its own internal energy and dynamics. A true baker, or what is commonly referred to as an artisan baker, learns how to respect this energy and dynamic and flow with it, rather than try to fight it. In modern, commercial, production-line bakeries there is very little dynamic and going with the flow. By using a combination of sophisticated machinery and chemicals, all the energy and dynamics present in dough are controlled to the n'th degree. Someone working in such a fully controlled environment cannot really be called a baker. More apt would be a bread technician. By quantifying and restricting what is essentially a natural process, you are squeezing the life force out of the bread. It is not surprising therefore that factory, production-line breads are so devoid of taste and character, while hand made, home baked or artisan breads are teeming with it.
That was the first revelation for me as a professional baker. I first thought that I would be doing the same thing - day in day out, ad nauseum and that it would soon become as boring as hell and tedious. Baking each day is about as boring as bringing up kids! The two are almost synonymous, both have a will and energy of their own and never fail to surprise you (and sometimes infuriate you).
Once you view things from this angle and you begin to start tapping into one of life's natural processes and working with it, alongside it, instead of trying to rule it and control it, that is when you start to see results.
Since I was thirteen, I have been baking and kneading dough each week. Even during the first year our bakery was operating I continued hand kneading the breads. I have yet to find a more relaxing and meditative pastime than hand kneading bread dough. You can actually feel the life force in the dough! This may seem ridiculous to the unindoctrinated, but it is true nonetheless. If you knead children's plastic putty dough for an hour or more, it will be exactly the same as when you started. After just 5 minutes kneading bread dough you will begin to feel the change as the gluten begins to develop and the dough starts to "tighten up".
When you see a recipe for bread that says "knead for ten minutes", you think to yourself - how will I possibly be able to get through that? Aside from the physical effort involved in such an activity, what about the boredom factor? Nothing could be further from the truth. True bread making is a gentle process, you do not have to knead the dough like you are running the Boston marathon. It is a gentle physical activity that needn't even work up a sweat. Secondly it is a form of occupational therapy that allows your mind to relax while your body is engaged in mild physical activity, working your hands with a material that has its own life force and internal energy. It is the best time of the day or week to reflect, to plan, to reminisce. For those who view it in that light, it can be the best time of their week. It has often been mine.
I miss hand kneading. Since our bakery began to grow, it became impossible to knead all that dough by hand. I can tell you from personal experience that the Good L-rd created the human arm to knead a bread or two a week or even a day, but not over 200 hundred breads each day. If you have heard of tennis elbow, that has nothing on what happens to your skeletal structure when you try knead two or three batches of a 40kg dough each day. That was like running the Boston marathon! every day! I had no choice but to purchase an electric powered dough mixer. However I still find ample opportunities to indulge in that gentle physical meditative process whilst doing other baking tasks such as shaping and braiding for example.
Such repetitive physical activity can easily be meditative and even therapeutic, especially when correctly structured and placed in the appropriate setting, with music in the background for example. I cannot begin to tell you how therapeutic it can be, after working uncountable times with hundreds of groups of children (of all ages), with special needs populations like autistic kids, Alzheimer patients. It has to be seen to be believed. The simple action of working dough is like magic - it calms and heals.
After spending a lifetime innovating, developing new algorithms and programs, I have now begun to appreciate the virtues of simple repetition. There is a great comfort in repetition and a great responsibility too, trying to achieve consistency in your repetition while working with a fabric that defies consistency. There is a simple beauty in it and a great pride. I used to feel sorry for people who worked in repetitive jobs, I no longer do. They often possess a greater inner tranquility than those who are constantly required to innovate and differentiate.
It may sound like I am trying to elevate the simple, basic task of baking to a philosophical or even religious level. The truth is that baking is not unique in this respect. There are a hundred alternatives that could easily achieve similar results. I am simply using it as a metaphor because a. it is what I do, I know it well and b. because it does possess some unique characteristics that other activities do not.
What is essential, whether you apply baking to achieve it or some other method, is that we seek some form of self meditation to balance our lives. Baking works, I know, I have tried it. It may also work for you!
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