“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight… [Breadmaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.” — M.F.K. Fisher (The Art of Eating)
For a girl whose happiness owes a great deal to the likes of yoga, games of rummy over coffee, and a good concert; I find myself starting a lot of these posts peddling the benefits of meditation by cooking and baking. There really is something uniquely therapeutic and recharging about directing our thoughts and energy to the instructions of a recipe. Washing, mincing, shucking, stirring… suddenly, we’ll have realized we’re breathing again. Ms. Fisher says it beautifully of bread-baking in particular; how the business of measuring, kneading, and letting rest can help us slow down, pay attention, and actually wait for good things to unfold.
Waiting. What a concept. How often do we really have to wait for anything, anymore? Many have labeled ours the generation of instant gratification; and although Shaun and I would like to think ourselves excluded from the categorization, we do fall into the trenches of haste from time to time.
Successful loaves, I realized during the process, are like successful relationships. They can be attributed to attentiveness, patience, and our full presence – the trifecta of mindfulness. Don’t rush the process, don’t try to force it be something it doesn’t want to be, keep it simple, and savor the hard work. Give it some TLC and you’ll feel so proud that you didn’t take the easy way out (as in, buying it from the supermarket). Start a relationship with bread-making and you’ll start to understand more about your own, I guess.
This bread is well worth the wait. Inspired by a variety we’ve always loved from a local vendor at the Farmers Market, it’s sweet, savory, and will disappear right before your eyes. Fresh figs are just starting to arrive at the markets, but dried ones will turn out just as swell.
Fig and Anise Seed Bread, built from Best French Bread by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything
- 3 1/2 cups organic bread flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast
- Scant 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons anise seed
- 1 cup chopped black mission figs (I use dried)
In the bucket of a food processor with the steel blade attachement, add the flour, salt, and yeast and process for 5-10 seconds. While the machine runs, pour the water through the feed tube and mix for 30 seconds to a minute, or until the mixture becomes a sticky ball. Add a teaspoon or two of water if it seems too dry. Scoop the sticky ball out of the container,and as Mark says “dump” into a large bowl. Add the anise seed and chopped figs, and knead together until well spread throughout the dough. Shape into a ball. Cover with a clean towel and let sit for 3 hours. Wait. Patience.
Sprinkle a clean work surface with flour and give the mound a second light knead, and back to a ball. Pinch together the seam that forms at the bottom of the ball. Place a clean kitchen towel in a colander and sprinkle well with flour. Place the dough ball, seam side up, in the towel and sprinkle with more flour. Fold over the towel, and let sit for another 3-6 hours. Wait. Patience.
Preheat the oven to 450′ with a baking stone on the bottom shelf. When the oven comes to temperature, remove the ball from the colander and slash the top with a sharp knife. Be vigorous about it, it takes a bit to break the gluten. Transfer to the baking stone. Bake for 30(ish) minutes. Remove and let cool on a wire rack.