Lately, I've got to wondering how can I really call myself a man if I can't even bake bread. I think there's something inherently manly about baking bread - not only the kneading and rolling of dough and the sweaty heat of the kitchen, but it also involves yeast and is therefore not terribly distant from brewing beer. Maybe I should be brewing beer, too, but first things first. Bread.
The aptly named Michael Batterberry, founding editor of Food Arts and Food & Wine magazines, has written, "If civilization, as is generally accepted, was born of the first settled riverbank farms, bread made from harvested grains may well have been its first, and most profound, culinary expression. Millennia ago, bread became synonymous with the absolutely essential. In ancient Egypt, the word for bread meant 'life.'"
Think about it: the sacramental bread of the Christian communion service, the Passover matzoh, the Puritans' "white bread of God." There has long been a spiritual connection between bread and the divine.
As I continue to craft my own spiritual path, it seems apparent to me that the preparing, baking, and sharing of bread could be a mindfulness practice, similar to the Japanese tea ceremony or the furniture craftsmanship of the Shakers, who considered making something well to be an act of prayer in itself. To make bread mindfully can similarly become a spiritual practice, a communion with both the absolute and with the very history of civilization, and at the end, you have something to share with the world - food - so everybody wins, both the baker and the recipient of the baking.
Mind you, I have absolutely no experience or skill at this - it's hard to imagine a more rank amateur to start this project than myself. Typically, if I can't microwave it or boil it, I don't eat it, so this endeavor has a very steep learning curve for yours truly.
The first thing I'll need, I realized, is a good mixer, so today I went out and bought a heavy-duty KitchenAid stand mixer with five-quart glass bowl ($399). Expensive, but by all appearances the right tool for the job at hand, and something I won't have to upgrade when and if I reach the next level of competence. All new enterprises require some sort of new material goods.
I'll probably bake some muffins, biscuits, and scones initially, and then work my way from there up to flatbreads, hearth breads, and sourdoughs, and so on to who knows where (brioche?). But to start, for the very first task, I'll follow Zen Master Dogen's advice (Instructions for the Cook) and begin by preparing the chef, calming the mind and approaching the task with equanimity, judging not the ingredients or the final product but instead putting my full and total attention to the task at hand. To avoid errors and waste, Dogen would have us first sit and meditate before jumping into the chaos of the kitchen.
This won't turn into a blog about baking bread, but I'll keep the reader informed of my spiritual and culinary progress as this adventure progresses.