The Sweet Scent of Abundance or What Bread Teaches You About Life
The Sweet Scent of Abundance or What Bread Can Teach You About Life
If there’s one thing I know, it is scent.
I can smell untended onions browning in a pan, just as they pass through caramelization to scorching. I know the scent of on-the-verge-of-too-ripe melons and the velvety bittersweet scent of chocolate as it melts with butter. From rooms far away from the kitchen, I know the truth of plums, simmering in a jam pot, as they morph from watery fruit into scarlet preserves. In a half-breath, I can tell you the pungent smoky secrets of a fire, be it maple or mesquite. I know to the bean, as it roasts, if a coffee is Mocha Java or Columbian Supremo. Even in my sleep, through my dreams, I can smell a rank sourdough starter and awake, knowing to discard it.
I am a master baker, so it is within my vocation to know scent. Through countless bags of pristine flour, my sense of smell has fused itself to my intuition. I am part bloodhound, part alchemist. Bread has made me a shaman and perfumer.
The mythical secrets that have been revealed to me as a dough wrangler and fire tamer are unlimited. It’s also where my life lessons, as taught to me by yeasty doughs, have been most clear. If I know anything about the art of manifestation or how to woo abundance, I owe my gratitude to bread.
When I began as a baker three decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that you had to knead the guts out of the dough, and that a good “rise” should take forever. Forever, as in whole afternoons dedicated to watching bread rise. This was also the ’70s, wherein the joy of baking bread was felt to lie in its therapeutic benefits: presumably the kneading was a place to vent one’s demons; bread was as much staff of life as it became primal therapy. And then it turned out that bread does better with a cool rise. Cool and slow rises produce better-tasting bread with true soul appeal. The scent of these breads is wholly different, too — no more of those sour, heavy yeast smells that we thought was characterized great bread.
But the most flabbergasting thing about bread’s evolution is that it turned out that bread didn’t like — nor need — to be so rigorously kneaded. (It was the French bakers who knew this first of course). The bread simply wanted TO BE LEFT ALONE. Nice stuff happens when you leave it alone.
For bakers, this was a revolution. Instead of more attention, it turned out, better bread needed less attention. What it did need more of was time, faith, and intention (and, all things being equal of course, spring water, sea salt, unbleached flour, and great yeast or, better yet, a sourdough starter).
More than anything, what I have learned is that the recipe for the bread itself is but one component. I am another. And then there is this space between the baker and the bread — this serendipitous Anyone’s Land of wild yeast spores, luck, faith, culinary fairies, time, and unique readiness. And that readiness — that terrain of unrealized potential — that is the sweet spot, where the magic of manifestation revels in its full glory.
How do you beckon the sweet spot? You let go. You let the dough do its thing, let the yeast have its moment, let the dough transform itself on its own (and it will!).
You let go of doubt and release all notions of how it should be and what time it should take. And isn’t that the way of life itself?
I am lucky: When I forget this, my daily bread reminds me. My baker’s bloodhound nose can tell when the yeast is fresh or stale, and I can tell when the bread is due to come out of the oven: There is a telltale warm, caramel scent that is bread turning from rawness to doneness. I never rush — or check — the bread. It transmits its readiness by a patent scent and in effect, I am led by the nose to greater things. If I let it.
When I chase bread, I get inferior loaves. The same is true of manifesting anything else in my life.
There is a unique scent to “doneness”; a perfume that says I’m on the right path. I don’t lose my passion, but I stop feeling famished. Surrender replaces urgency; I become wholly engaged with the present. Of course — and this I learn repeatedly — it all invariably involves more time than I can imagine or want to sit with.
There is a unique scent of unfulfilled potential, that state before manifestation. That scent is like almost-ripe fruit that doesn’t sweeten if we grab it, but yearns instead for another day or two of sun and rain to become optimal.
Chasing a callow batch of dough and forcing it to give me its due only reduces me from master baker back to student. Same for life — if I pursue outcomes and pathways I’ve scripted and energized with sheer will of want, is always a humbling experience.
If I pay attention or, better yet, learn to wait with grace, a better life — even, say abundance, seeks me out, just as certainly as a golden brown loaf is manifest from the same seedling power I give it.
Marcy Goldman’s French Country Bread
Despite the use of a sponge starter, this bread is not complicated, and it’s ideal for both new bakers and veterans. It also serves just fine as a pizza dough.
Makes one large loaf
Sponge Starter (see below)
3 3/4 to 4 cups bread flour, divided
1 cup water, preferably spring water
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon instant dry yeast
For the Sponge Starter
1 cup water, preferably spring water
1/2 teaspoon instant dry yeast
1 1/4 cups organic bread flour
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons rye flour
1. For the sponge starter, in a small bowl, stir the water and yeast together briefly, and then stir in the bread flour, whole wheat flour, and rye flour to make a thick mixture. Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature 4 hours or (preferably) overnight. (For a bread machine: Place ingredients in the pan. Set the machine on “dough” mode to mix the ingredients. Turn off the machine. Put the cover down and let stand. Once the dough cycle is complete, remove the dough from the machine and continue with recipe.)
2. Stir down the starter so it is no longer puffy or foamy. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and all of the remaining ingredients for the dough. Mix or knead to make a shaggy mess of dough. Cover and let the dough rest for 15 minutes, then resume kneading just a bit for a smooth dough, dusting in additional flour as required so that you have a soft ball or dough.
3. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl. Insert the bowl into a large plastic bag, and let the dough rise about 45 minutes.
4. Stack two baking sheets together. Line the top one with parchment paper.
5. After the rise, gently deflate the dough (whether it is in the machine or in a bowl), and form it into a ball. Place the ball of dough seam side down on the prepared baking sheets.
6. Spray the dough lightly with a non-stick vegetable spray . Insert the entire baking sheet into a large plastic garbage bag (this is your “proofing tent”). Let the dough rise until the ball is puffy and 60–70% larger.
7. Position a rack as low as possible in the oven and preheat to 475° F.
8. Slash the loaf ¼–1/2 inch deep with a sharp knife before baking. These slits allow the dough or bread to expand and bloom in the oven more easily.
9. Atomize the oven with a few squirts of water and place the baking sheets on the lowest rack. Spray the oven interior every 5 minutes for the first 15 minutes. Then allow to bake until medium brown all over, 25–30 more minutes.
10. reduce the heat to 425° F to finish baking. The loaf should be well browned after 25–35 minutes. Allow it to cool well on a rack before slicing.