An Essay on My Bread

“To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”

Pearl S. Buck

I tore my bread in half this morning before I dipped it into a mug of hot coffee. Although you may not understand it, my bread was the best bread in the world this morning. The bread was a superior loaf of bread for several reasons. Allow me to explain my position instead of rushing over to my office to finish sorting files and packing boxes.

First, the bread was the work of my own hands. There are plenty of loaves down the road at the grocery store. Some of the loaves are quite lovely, but none of them are the work of my hands. The bread I sliced into perfect thick slices was shaped with my fingers. The pan in which it baked rests a few feet away. Even in the middle of packing and chaos, my bread is still a reminder of calmer moments.

Second, the bread comes with a memory of a yeasty aromatherapy. A few days ago, I soaked flour in water with a bit of yeast before letting it spend the night fermenting in a bowl. The house filled with a rich smell the following morning after I combined this fragrant mix with a little more flour, water, and yeast. Between the smell of the rising dough and fragrance of the browning loaves, our house was filled with sensations that were immediately recaptured through the toasting of the bread. Although my office smells like furniture polish and a hot paper shredder, for this moment I can be transported to quiet hours where more than my dough rested.

Third, my bread just tears well. As a minister, I break loaves of bread in half a lot more than most people. I have broken rolls, crackers, wafers, baguettes, french bread, challah, and a host of homemade loaves. My bread tore in half today with a little bit of resiliency, bounced back with a bit of spring, and was ready to suck up hot coffee. My bread tears in a lovely way.

Fourth, my bread tastes heavenly. There’s a tiny bit of salt for the tongue, a depth of earthiness from the wheat, and a yeasty aftertaste. The bread is complex from the darkness of the crust to the tasty depths of the crags. My bread is not from some uniformly mass produced taste factory. My bread is unique.

In conclusion, you may have heard that something or another is the best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread is great, but my sliced bread is wonderful to me. There are only two types of bread that are better than this loaf of bread: the bread I will bake in the future and the bread that you make for your enjoyment.

Reflections on Taut Dough

Over the last week at Maine Federated Church, our daily devotional has focused on the subject of the spirituality of bread baking. A while back, our church used Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines” as the basis for a small group study. Last week we delved into the same subject using additional resources. In particular, we delved into the science of bread baking through “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee and Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza.”

This morning the Maine Federated Church is shifting to a week studying the Ascension, but I am not leading an Ascension service or a Memorial Day service. I am preparing a loaf of bread to go with dinner. Leading a church without an online worship service in the midst of the pandemic has been frustrating at times. I understand the rationale behind the church’s decision to proceed digitally in a way that is inclusive to all people in the congregation, but it is unsettling to wake up Sunday morning with time to bake bread.

To be entirely clear, while I am frustrated, I believe with all of my being that the church has a responsibility to reopen in a way that is measured and safe. I do not believe that we should rush into a dangerous situation that can endanger lives because any politician says that it is time to open. I also own the fact that this is my opinion.

Yeasty scents come from under this kitchen towel!

Today I am working with a recipe from Ken Forkish’s book. In particular, I am making a loaf of whole wheat bread to go with dinner. Overnight, water, flour, and a little bit of yeast fermented on our counter in a container. This morning, I combined the biga with additional water, flour, salt, and yeast to create a dough. Over the last few hours, I have sat with the dough as it continues to grow across the room. Yeasty scents fill the air and lead to thoughts of life.

One of the parts of the bread baking process which is in my thoughts this morning is the folding process recommended by Ken Forkish. I have folded the dough four times and have noticed the dough growing more and more taut as the process continues. The folding helps to give structure to the dough and itself is very interesting. When you first uncover the dough, it seems like a sloppy mess. After a few gentle folds, the dough begins to show a structure that seemed impossible moments before.

The tension in the dough continues to amaze me. Without the stress placed on the dough, the dough would end up a messy pool of liquid. When the dough is stretched, the dough develops the structure that will make the bread incredible.

Think about what spiritual lessons might be drawn from a parable rooted in this practice. We all want to live in communities that never face tensions, but can we be shaped into the communities we are meant to be without the occasional pressure or stressor? Just as a knife cannot be sharpened without the pressures of honing or as an athlete cannot grow stronger without challenging practice, can a community grow stronger without facing the occasional struggle? Can an individual grow into their potential without facing difficulty?

To be clear, there’s something to be said against stretching the dough to the point where it rips. Dough can definitely be overworked, but dough can also be underworked. How would the bread turn out if a person just put the ingredients into a bread pan without mixing?

As a minister, I have witnessed congregations that were unwilling to engage in healthy challenges and stretching. Most of them have struggled and some of them have closed. As a person, I have witnessed in other lives and have lived through portions of my own life where an unwillingness to engage in difficult situations led to terrible consequences.

When we live with the goal of never facing difficulty, we often become weakened to the point of uselessness. While this is a difficult time in life, it is my hope that the stretching we are all facing might strengthen us over the long run. May God bless you all this Sunday and keep you well.

Fresh from the oven!

Let us Bake: On Cookies

I have a confession to make in the subject of baking. I am uncomfortable with the concept of making cakes. Not just the big ones that are covered in fondant or frosting—I am concerned with mini-cupcakes, cupcakes, sheet-cakes, bundt-cakes, and all manner of cake-pops.

I do not like frosting. I have told several members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee that I have one nemesis when I spend time in the church kitchen and that nemesis is not a person. My kitchen nemesis is frosting. As a perfectionist, I cannot manage to get the frosting completely even on a simple cake (on even my best of days) and that bothers me deeply and fundamentally. I struggle with Shepherd’s pies for the same reason, but those I manage through just applying massive quantities of potatoes in thick layers.

By now I probably have established my dislike of frosting, but let me make absolutely certain you understand my feelings on the subject. I do not like frosting in my house, I do not like it with a mouse, I do not like it with a box, I do not like it with a fox… My dislike of frosting requires “Suessical” levels of description. I think you get the point.

Still, I live in a world that likes sweet things and I like sweet things. How do I cope with living in a world where people come to visit, we need to take a plate of something to share, or there’s going to be a rough meeting and everyone will be cranky? I cope through making cookies. Sweet, sweet cookies.

Not the frosted one mind you—cookies should be enjoyed without icing, as God intended. I would know as I have both a degree saying that I have mastered the divine and the slightest tendency to exaggerate!

So, I find myself cooking cookies a lot more than I ever did before I took it on myself to take on the lion’s share of the cooking in our house. As I have more luck being creative with savory things, I am always on the lookout for another cookbook, another magazine article, or another recipe from a church kitchen. I could use the internet, but people on the internet use things like “frosting” and I do not want to get my hopes up with a recipe just to find my arch-nemesis is hiding in the details.

My newest cookie cookbook. Yes, it is older than me. You can tell the age of the cookbook by the fact that “lard” is a common ingredient in a lot of the recipes… The recipes still look delicious!

I have learned a few things about cookies while practicing the art of making tasty things. Some of the things I have learned even have a spiritual aspect!

One of the first things I learned was that cookie dough occasionally needs to be refrigerated before use. I like working with bread and especially bread that rises in a warm place. I like watching it grow to gigantic sizes before being beaten down. There is something beautiful about thinking of those tiny little grains of yeast growing, living, eating, and creating little communities that make my bread taste better. I like to think of them as living little tiny lives in a symbiotic relationship. A couple may give their lives to make my loaf of bread, but millions of their relatives are grown, kept safe, and given a chance to live in a safe environment so that there will be more yeast tomorrow. They are domesticated micro-organisms and I like to think of them as being as happy as cows in a field.

Cookies are different though. There’s nothing happily growing in the cookies. Cookie dough tends to be sticky, messy, and goopy. Cookie dough can be hard to portion, hard to roll, and hard to make uniformly sized, unless you refrigerate it! With some cookie dough, refrigerating the dough takes a sticky goop and makes it manageable. What would have been a disaster when first mixed separates calmly from a scoop after the dough is chilled.

What spiritual lesson do I get from this? I have learned that sometimes you need to take a step back from a situation and allow time to cool your passions. I work in a church and often there are situations that make me “hot under the collar.” In my case, they make me feel hot under the clerical collar, and that’s a problem at times. When I wear that collar, I represent something greater than myself. While others have the luxury of being themselves, when I stand there in a collar I represent a part of the continuum of the clergy who will come before and after me. In fact, I wear the collar in part to remind me that I am fulfilling my call to ministry as part of a tradition and with a family of colleagues.

At times, when I get mad, I need to let myself calm down. Occasionally that means excusing myself from a meeting to take a walk around the sanctuary before returning. Sometimes that means circling the metaphorical problem a number of times before blowing a horn and hoping that things will come crashing down without having to go and get crazy in my own little Jericho. Occasionally, I need to just take a couple of deep breaths.

When I cool down, things tend to go easier. I have an easier time forgiving, an easier time being flexible, an easier time realizing when I have made a mistake, an easier time asking for forgiveness, and especially an easier time being the human who has to live under that collar.

I imagine that most people would find that life goes a lot easier when they give themselves time to calm down like cookie dough. Consider Proverbs 14:15-17: (NRSV)

The simple believe everything,
but the clever consider their steps.
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly,
and the schemer is hated.

Second, I have learned the value of practice. When I first try a recipe, I generally do everything in the recipe the way that it is written. I found one recipe for a double-chocolate macaroon which was quite delicious as written. The coconut in the recipe was very tasty and the recipe as written was delicious.

I could keep enjoying that recipe the way it was written, but I have learned something valuable in all of my time in the kitchen. Practice widens the ability to experiment. I took the recipe, pondered the ingredients, considered the coconut, and then looked at the oven. I toasted the coconut in the oven to bring out the flavor found in the unassuming white shreds. From the outside, you would not know that the coconut had been altered. The coconut was covered and interlaced with two types of chocolate before being cooked and was no longer white regardless of what happened before making the cookies, but the taste of the cookies.

The toasted coconut dances with the chocolate. A steaming hot cup of coffee, those toasted coconut cookies, and a good conversation move a pretty good afternoon to an amazing afternoon.

The only reason that I knew how to move the cookies from good to amazing was because I spent time in the kitchen practicing. In ministry, as in life, there is value to practicing until you can not only know how to do a thing, but how to improvise based on the resources you have around you. Practice helps in public speaking, public praying, and musical performance. Practice helps you to be better when a friend needs comfort, when a neighbor needs a hand, when the world turns upside down, and when the unexpected happens. Life is better when you put in the time to practice, learn to improvise, and get to a place where challenges can be met with confidence and faith.

Third, I learned to forgive myself when I burn the cookies. Let’s be honest. Everyone burns cookies now and again. Learning to let go and move on with life is a life skill that we all need from time to time. Just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I first burnt bread, just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I messed up soup so badly it made me want to cry, and just as in all other things, I had to learn to forgive myself the first time the cookies were so hard I could break a tooth on them without a good soak in warm milk. The cookies burn, you salvage what you can, and you move on with life.

I hope these reflections on lessons from cookies helps you to think about what lessons you might learn from your kitchen, especially if you spend a lot of time in there like me. May God bless you as you learn from life’s mistakes and may you never be forced to frost something that is fine without it!

Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

Today, I’m baking my first loaf of bread while reading through Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines.” I’ve already let Yancey’s words begin to affect my style of making sandwich bread for my family, but today will be the first time I intentionally set about the 6 hour process of making bread.

I have spent the last few weeks enjoying morsels from Yancey’s book, but this week we are plunging into our study, so the time has come to not only become serious about working with Yancey’s book, but to become serious about baking bread.

This week we’re working through the chapter on “Mise en Place: The Examen.” At the heart of it, mise en place is the most important part of trying a recipe. Yancey summarizes the process (in the first paragraph of the chapter) as “checking in, giving the kitchen and your abilities a once-over to confirm you are able to complete the recipe.”

As a home cook, the process is like the preflight checklist before taking off in an airplane. You might as well try to fly a jet without fuel as try to bake a loaf of bread without the ingredients. Do I have the right equipment? I experimented with trying out the mise en place on the recipe provided by Yancey Preston and realized I didn’t have two of the right bowls for letting the bread proof in the refrigerator! Either Amazon’s mistake or my own actions led to me only having one when I needed two! I had a poor substitute for one of the bowls, but I didn’t have them prepared! I looked further and realized I’d need to pull out my Dutch Oven and check the seasoning.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked that I was so unprepared to make the bread! I cook often in our home and often make bread for my family’s lunches. To be aware that I was completely unprepared for the recipe in the book is something that rarely happens, but as I reflected on the process, I realized how much I have learned to cope, to substitute, and to adjust recipes simply because I forgot to look ahead to see if I had what I needed. As Preston Yancey says: (pg. 39)

“The practice of mise en place is essential but often skipped. We assume a lot in this life, and we are no different in our kitchens. We plunge ahead because we’ve made x or y before so surely this is like all those times before. Often it is, until the dreadful moment it is not and we are affronted once more by the sickly quality of presumption.”

The concept of reading through directions, collecting ingredients, and even double checking that I have enough of those ingredients should be second nature as I cook a lot in our home, but for some reason it is not a regular part of my practice in the kitchen. I know for a fact that I am a better cook when I double check that I have what I need before I begin my time cooking in the kitchen. I still find myself often ignoring my better judgment and relying on my ability to substitute or make do with what I have on hand.

So, am I alone in the pattern of ignoring my better judgment? I somehow doubt that I am alone in this bad pattern of behavior. What’s worse, I know that this behavior is clearly not restricted to the kitchen. I often go rushing off into things without thinking about the long run. Sometimes it is something like a new Bible study program for personal growth or an extreme exercise routine to help my body get healthier. I start off with the best of intentions, but find myself suddenly in a situation far above my skill level or capability. Occasionally I do not check in with someone else who needs to be a part of something, I assume that everything is in place, or I just decide I will go with the flow without proper preparation. I sometimes believe that I am a master at not properly planning!

I think there are two things I have learned from this week’s attempt at mise en place. First, I need to do my homework, check off my list, and simply be more aware of what I am doing. Second, I need to intentionally be more prepared for my own journey in the kitchen and through life.

Part of the mise en place, as previously mentioned, was to prepare my dutch oven for the stove. The stove was going to be heated to 500 degrees. The cast iron dutch oven is seasoned with shortening. Looking ahead should have warned me to be prepared for smoke. What happened? Was I prepared? Take a guess…

Thankfully, my nearly three month old found the puff of smoke amusing, the fact that I rushed into the next room with a magazine to wave at the chirping smoke alarm to be funny, and was perfectly alright with my need to be distracted for a moment. She was just as giggly after the smoke cleared.

The very first loaf of the bread from the book. A bit overly brown, the slashes weren’t deep enough on top, and it is definitely a good reminder that everything can be seen as a work in progress! If at first you don’t succeed (in doing it perfectly), obsess  endlessly over the next loaf!”

Part of the mise en place that I need to enact in my own life is the ability to roll with the punches with grace. I need to prepare myself for when things don’t go perfect every single time I bake, especially as I do have blind spots in how I often prepare. I need to learn to let some expectations go and to have the capacity to replace my frustration with amusement. That’s a preparation that needs to happen deep in my heart. It is also a preparation that goes beyond my cooking.

When I wake up in the morning, do I prepare my heart for things going wrong in my day? Do I tell God that I want today to be a wonderful day even if things go sideways? Do I seek to find places not only to feel gratitude but to foster gratitude in my life? Do I practice the mise en place to be ready for my life?

IMG_1756.JPG

You see, now that’s a little bit better!

I think Preston Yancey is correct that disciplines like the examen can help us to be prepared for the turmoils of life, but I also believe there is something powerful about the discipline of asking God to give us what we need for a given day or a given hour. Do we prepare ourselves for the kitchen of life? If nothing else comes out of this week’s study, I am grateful I now have that question to ponder.

How about you? Do you have a favorite practice for preparing for a day of life in the real world? Do you have some sort of pattern or practice that helps you to be ready for whatever comes in your path?