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Mindful : December 2014
I also found that my senses “learned,” or beca me smarter, so that they guided me almost uncon- sciously. With weekly and sometimes daily practice, they overtook the cogitating, calculating mind—a highly unusual state in the world we now live in, cloistered with our computers. In this world, the thinking mind is at the center of our universe. But bread making taught me that craft could elevate senses to an equivalent, or even superior, level, for they in essence tell you what to do. Over the years, I realized I had much to learn, not only about the science of ma king bread, but about the vagaries of this craft, to understa nd intellectu- ally what in fact my senses were already telling me. In this process, recipes or instruction were at best a faint map. The more I baked, the more I realized techniques were far more important than a ny rec- ipe, and they were difficult to explain because they depended on touch and feel. It was only after baking for some time that I realized: When you get good enough to follow a bread recipe a nd actually suc- ceed, you’re at the point where you no longer need a recipe. To reach that point, I read a lot, cornered professionals for advice, scoured the Internet for tips, and focused on that key phrase or paragraph in a book that would change my entire understand- ing of bread, even if the author only mentioned it in passing. Ma ny said I had become obsessed with bak- ing, but I felt I was only paying attention in a rigor- ous way. The more I learned, the more the universe of bread expanded. It was a continual endeavor of exploration and learning. And I baked. I baked a lot. How much water did you use in a loaf? Just enough. How long did you bake it? Until it was done. In the pre-modern era, giant communal ovens had no temperature gauges or timers. Flour was fa r less consistent than it is today, so each batch of dough had to be fine-tuned. Old varieties of wheat were highly diverse and wheat wasn’t even widely avail- able until the 18th century, so loaves were more often made from a mixture of wheat, barley, spelt, or rye. Each of these grains required a slightly different method a nd opened up endless variation, which gave rise to the wide variety of breads eaten in homes rich and poor. But this variety also elevated the craft of the baker, for he or she had to know how to work with highly unpredictable ingredients. That craft could only be lea rned by doing the work again and again. It was all practice. I saw this level of craft while baking baguettes with a master baker in Paris, at Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel. The loaves finished their second rise, then rested on a linen couche or cloth for about 30 minutes. The key question I always have at this point is, “Are they ready for the oven?” The moment, which can’t really be measured, is a point of exquisite tension when the dough is both relaxed a nd elastic. If the baker gets the timing just right, the loaves will spring up in the oven. But if he doesn’t , the crumb will be tight. But I was on a roll, I’d bake every day, often mixing my dough late in the afternoon or evening, letting it rise through the night in the refrigerator, and baking the next morning or afternoon. But something else—something more substan- tial—happened the more I baked. The work itself wasn’t time consuming. It amounted to five or ten minutes here and there to take the bread to the next stage, whether feeding my sourdough starter bubbling away in a kitchen cabinet, hand mixing the dough, or shaping a nd baking a loaf in the oven. But because each was a distinct step that had to be car- ried out at precisely the right moment, I had to learn to pay attention to this living, changing, fermenting substance. I began to be guided by my senses rather than my thought process. The intuitive mind that feels a nd senses began overriding, or directing, the cognitive mind of logic and analysis. ThishithomeformeonedayasIslidaloafof sourdough onto the baking stone in the oven, then set the digital timer on my oven. I had made this bread dozens of times, so each stage was fa miliar. But that day, as I was working in my office, I forgot about the bread and went about my work until a kind of toasty hazelnut a roma brought me to attention. My brain was off running, doing other things, but the smell brought me back, not unlike a bell rung in a meditation session. I stopped, jogged downstairs and arrived in front of the oven, with just a minute left on the timer. I peered inside. The crust was dark, toasted. I grabbed the flat wooden peel (the paddle-like tool that bakers and pizza-makers use), opened the oven door, a nd slid the loaf off the baking stone. I tapped the bottom and hea rd a rich, hollow knock. The loaf was done. What had happened? My sense of smell had, in effect, woken me up and told me the loaf was ready. This wasn’t chance. Not then, not now. No matter how long a loaf takes, smell guides me. Like so much else about baking, your senses—sight, smell, and especially touch—are your most importa nt tools. Something started to happen the more I baked. I began to be guided by my senses, rather than my thought process. The intuitive mind began overriding, or directing, the cognitive mind of logic and analysis. 64 mindful December 2014 essay