I consider myself to be a decent cook, a little lax with direction-following at times, but generally adventurous and willing to try new things.
I also occasionally make goals for myself, as I do in other parts of my life. For the past four years or so, my goal has been to learn to make awesome bread.
Each year, the routine is the same: pore over cookbooks and conduct endless internet searches for the “perfect” bread recipe. Decide I don’t have a food processor, so can’t do it. Decide I don’t have a fancy stand mixer, so can’t do it. Decide that I don’t have a dutch oven, so can’t do it. Decide that I don’t have the right kind of flour, so can’t do it. Decide that it’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too dry, so can’t do it. I’m pretty good at excuses.
Then there have been the grand experiments that have mostly failed, resulting in loads of sad, sticky dough bound for only the trash can and the creatures who used our dumpster as a feed trough. These failures have resulted from using the wrong yeast, the wrong temperature of water, and overall, a lack of planning on my part. I usually decided that I’d become The World’s Best Baker on a weekend morning, on days already packed with responsibilities and planned outings. I’d try to hurry the dough along to fit my schedule. The best laid plans, literally, were wasted.
Over time, I’ve acquired many of those appliances that I’d considered to be absolutely essential to the effort; this year, for Christmas, I received a gorgeous blue-enameled, cast iron dutch oven. And now, in my professional transition, I have free time at home during my days that I’ve never experienced.
In other words: I was out of excuses.
So on Monday I pulled out my trusty copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman for the no-knead bread recipe (a version of which is available here.) I first read it when it was published in the Times in 2006 — which may have even sparked this long, dramatic effort, now that I think about it.
The amount of time it took me to actually do something — measure, stir, shape the dough, etc. — was probably a total of 10 or 15 minutes. But it took planning. This technique requires the dough to rise at room temperature for 18 hours. About two hours before you plan to bake, you shape it in to a ball.
I put the appropriate times that I needed to hit on my calendar, and then I tried something new: I didn’t worry about it.
I remembered a good friend of mine telling me a few years ago that bread can, in a sense, smell fear, and will act accordingly. I believed him then, but now I see what he meant.
I didn’t worry about the equipment (I used a spoon, and a bowl, and the dutch oven.) I didn’t worry about the ambient temperature of the house; the weather is getting nicer every day, and the temperature was close enough. I didn’t worry about having it ready for supper.
The result? a dark, crusty loaf of bread that made me feel like a magician.
I’ll make it again, and I’m sure I’ll get more comfortable with the process over time. But if I’m really going to get deep about it, there’s another lesson somewhere in here, about the power of letting go.
In this case, it was delicious. It makes me wonder what I’ve been missing by being too prescriptive, too nervous, and, OK, too fearful of taking a chance with other things.
May we all overcome our obstacles in a similar way.