Flour Power


By Lavinia Spalding  |  

I was well into my 30s when I summoned the nerve to make bread for the first time, settling on challah as my inaugural loaf. I felt drawn to the braided bread, traditionally served at Jewish Shabbat dinner, partly because of its sweet flavor and spiritual significance. Also, my niece Emma makes challah occasionally, and I reasoned that if a sixth grader could do it, so could I.

Still, I had no idea what I was doing. As a regular meditator for the past four years, I was mostly intrigued by the notion of baking bread as a meditation, and I had an inkling that kneading dough in a meditative manner would help me still my mind. Always eager to incorporate more mindfulness into my daily life, I fancied the art of baking becoming a natural extension of my formal sitting practice. Even without having made bread before, I could easily intuit why people the world over regard the activity as meditation. Baking not only demands concentration and presence but also offers a bit of sanctuary. After all, who’d expect you to answer email, elbow deep in dough? Baking bread comes with its own "push, fold, turn, push, fold, turn" kneading mantra, and the undertaking itself—turning a sticky, formless gob of flour and water into a supple ball of dough—evokes the transformation of the mind from messy to manageable.

As Edward Espe Brown, the Zen priest, cook, and author of The Tassajara Bread Book, puts it: "For some people, making bread can be what creates a shift in awareness. You mix the ingredients, put your hand in the water to test the temperature, and feel the dough as you’re kneading it. You use your senses. Meditation is sometimes referred to as ‘coming to your senses,’ and in making bread there’s the same quality of waking up and giving your attention to something."

In formal meditation, I give my attention to the breath. So, to begin this experiment with baking meditation, I decided to synchronize my breathing with kneading the dough. And had I been a more accomplished baker (or meditator, for that matter), this might have worked out. Alas, soon after I began to push the heels of my hands into my first batch of dough, my mind refused to cooperate with my intentions. Instead of quieting down, my brain nagged at me with a litany of rookie mistakes I quickly realized I’d made. I had used all-purpose flour, not bread flour. I’d measured instead of weighed the ingredients. I’d used tap water instead of filtered. The eggs were cold, not room temperature. "Enough," I thought, applying the mental brakes. "Hello—opposite of meditation." Slowly, gently, I let my mind settle and began following my inhalations and exhalations as my hands vigorously worked the dough.

Baker’s Sense

Fortunately, I soon noticed I was about to hyperventilate (I’ve never mastered rubbing my belly while patting my head, either), and I chose a new path, deciding to just make bread. Which, according to Brown, is the whole point. "When making bread," he sagely advises, "make bread."

It’s great to engage in baking as a form of meditation. But "It’ll be distracting to wonder if you’re meditating right," says Brown. "You can be meditatively absorbed—not thinking of yesterday or tomorrow, but giving your attention to the bread. Some masters say, ‘Be kind with your breath, enjoy your breath. Don’t just pay attention to it, but develop kindness toward it.’ Likewise, be kind to the bread. Bring tenderness to it."

And that’s exactly what I did next, noticing the bread’s suppleness, yeasty aroma, and spongy texture. Instead of worrying about my breath or any meditation techniques, I simply focused on the dough in my hands.

"For people who spend a lot of time in their head, it’s good to have an activity that grounds them, roots them in the earth," says Peter Reinhart, author of seven cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning Bread Baker’s Apprentice. "If you can be in the moment with the bread, be as conscious as you can of what you’re doing, understand the stages, and be aware that you’re the author of the dough, guiding it through the process, then it becomes its own meditation."

Taste of Love

My own intro-to-bread-making adventure lasted 15 hours and yielded a clumsily braided loaf the size of my wrist. It was cute, warm, edible. It was not transcendent, nor was it even challah. I didn’t mind; I’d enjoyed myself. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to call the experience meditation. Although I’d felt calm, I hadn’t exactly been observing my mind.

I could see why for many people, the simple, joyful act of baking could provide for a wonderful meditation; however, I knew my own mind, and it was too unruly. Although it was clear that my initial strategy—trying to follow my breath and harness my thoughts while kneading dough—was asking a little too much of myself, I was curious to explore whether incorporating another point of focus would improve the meditation.

Jeremy Moran, a San Francisco Jiva-mukti Yoga teacher and professional chef, offered a suggestion: mantra. Chanting mantra while making bread, Moran says, brings you into the moment and helps you engage in pranayama. "When you chant mantra, you’re regulating your breath. It slows your heart rate, which in turn slows the process of the mind. It’s also a way to do service for somebody else. If you believe that blessing the food with mantra will benefit the person eating it, then whoever eats it will taste that good intention and love."

Mantra was just what I’d been searching for—the perfect complement to my moving meditation. Not only did it relax my mind and keep me centered, I never felt strained or distracted by it. Best of all, chanting mantra took precisely the right amount of effort—for meditation always requires a specific amount of exertion, a delicate balance between too much and not enough effort.

"If we try to force the mind to stay focused," explains Khentrul Lodr" Thaye Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation instructor, "we can end up feeling disturbed by our meditation. If we’re too relaxed, we risk becoming drowsy and falling into mental dullness. The right amount of tension is just enough for us to hold on to the focus point, but no more: not too loose, not too tight."

Rise Above

Bread baking, I discovered, is no different. The magic lives in the interstices, the sweet in-betweens. If the water that’s mixed with the yeast is too hot, the yeast will die; too cold, and the yeast won’t activate. Insufficiently kneaded dough won’t rise; dough that’s kneaded too much can overoxidize and lose flavor. Once it’s kneaded, you have to ensure the dough remains at a neutral temperature—neither too cold nor too warm—or it won’t rise properly. Given a too-brief proofing stage, the loaf may expand in the oven and then collapse; too long, and the bread may split while baking. The entire process requires awareness, attention to detail, and a certain level of detachment: in short, a commitment to balance.

Chief among the fundamental in-betweens of bread baking is the first rise—the pregnant pause between mixing the ingredients and shaping the loaf. A respite for bakers, this is when the dough and its yeast go to work. A slow rise, Reinhart insists, is critical. "The mission of the baker is to evoke the full potential of flavor trapped in the grain," he says. "In order to do that, you can’t rush the fermentation process. If you look at it poetically, slow rise is a metaphor for life in general. We unwind slowly, just as bread dough unwinds slowly."

Each stage of bread making includes an in-between component. And although cookbooks might teach what to look for, a desirable loaf, like a controllable mind, requires intuition, observation, and practice, practice, practice. Indeed, it turns out that almost everything I needed to know about bread making I had already learned in meditation. Begin with a pure intention. Understand the basics. Create a clean, favorable work space. Take your time. Be patient. Expect and welcome challenges and obstacles. Be present. Release attachment to outcome. Joyfully persevere. Breathe.

And finally, accept what is. This last tenet I apply liberally to bread making. Sometimes I manage to find the right tension; sometimes I lean into the sense of being connected to the earth; sometimes I chant; other times I kind of space out. Most important, I make bread—challah, milk bread, Tassajara bread, focaccia, Cuban bread, pita. The edible results might not be perfect, but the practice is perfectly imperfect.

Try It! Get the recipe for these delicious Wild Rice Country Rolls.

Lavinia Spalding is the coauthor of With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant.