2016-12-01 / Family Matters

Clarity, Creativity & Bread Baking

David Rockower

“Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.”  —Ken Robinson

I bake bread. I bake more loaves in a single weekend than my family can eat in two weeks. I bake rye, 100 percent whole wheat, oatmeal, cinnamon and chocolate coconut bread. Sometimes the loaves turn out beautifully, rising high with crisp outer crusts and moist, airy crumbs. Other times they remain flat, looking and tasting like wrinkled leather. I experiment, adjust ingredients, vary flour types, and attempt new kneading techniques. Though the product isn’t consistent, the process is always fulfilling. And this is what I love about baking bread: I’m creating something. When we create, we become self-aware, we connect with others, and we stretch time.

Bread baking allows me to recognize patterns in my life. By baking repeatedly, I’ve started to see that certain tendencies permeate all areas of my life. I make the same mistakes when teaching, when interacting with my children, when painting a room, that I make when baking a loaf of bread. While haphazardly opening the refrigerator door with dough all over my hands, I wonder why I hadn’t taken out the yeast ahead of time. Similarly, when teaching, I sometimes dive into a lesson without careful planning. These sessions rarely go as expected. My best lessons are well planned; in essence, I’ve lined up all the necessary ingredients ahead of time. So when I am creating, I’m discovering more about myself, and because of the repetitive nature of my creative pursuits, I’m offered the opportunity to improve as a person. I’ve made hundreds of loaves of bread, and a far greater number of mistakes, but last weekend, I smiled when I realized that every single ingredient was on the counter before I tore open the bag of flour.

When I started baking bread, I made only one or two loaves at a time. My thinking was: until I perfect this recipe, why waste ingredients? But I found myself talking to friends and family about the caraway rye loaf that came out just right. I wanted them to see it, taste it, critique it. Suddenly, providing a weekly loaf or two for my family of four wasn’t enough; I needed to share my bread with others. I began scouring the classifieds for a commercial mixer that would allow me to make eight loaves in a single session. I don’t bake eight loaves every weekend, but when I do, I pass out loaves at work, trade for farm fresh eggs, and break bread with extended family on the weekend. I’ve discovered a network of other artisan home bakers with whom I’ve exchanged lengthy emails, leading to a swap of sourdough starters. My hobby is a solitary practice. I plan and execute the process alone, but the distribution and sharing of my results broadens my social network and ultimately leads to a richer community of friends.

I find it troubling when I can’t remember what I did over the weekend. It’s often a blur of responsibilities and commitments. But when I bake, I remember the process and the details: I baked the cinnamon bread 5 minutes too long or added extra moisture to the oatmeal bread, which made it sublime. When I’m creating, time is non-existent. I’m immersed in the process of measuring, mixing, stretching and folding.

I fall into the tanginess of the sourdough, the warm scent of yeast working its magic, the rhythmic process of strengthening the gluten. I’m always trying to slow time, to sink deeper into the moment, and the creative process of bread baking allows me to do just that. I imagine it’s the same for my neighbor who crafts intricate furniture by hand and for my daughter when she constructs an entire village out of paper and cardboard. Maybe we can’t stop time, but by creating, we track it in slow motion, to the point where we can examine every grain.

I’ve experimented with other hobbies, and they’ve offered similar challenges and joys. I’ve learned to play a few chords on the guitar, take vivid portraits of my kids, and build a few handmade pieces of furniture for my home. Though I didn’t stick with any of these hobbies as long as I’ve stuck with bread baking, each has enriched my life, each has challenged me to improve, each has become cemented in my memory. I’ll continue to bake bread, striving for the perfect loaf, though I know this doesn’t exist, because as soon as I get close, there will be another recipe there to challenge me, to connect me with others and to bring the day into a mesmerizing clarity. •SCM

With a sports-obsessed 12-year-old son, a spirited 10-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, teacher David Rockower has a lot to write about.

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