Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Based on my own parents' reactions to their birthdays, I understood that once they reached a certain age (unless it was a milestone birthday like 40 or 50), there wasn't much accompanying excitement. It was another day in the year. Often a restaurant dinner and a few gifts were involved. Maybe cake.
Back when I was still in the habit of having big annual celebrations, my favorite undergraduate professor, Lisa, revealed her birthday plans. She was going to bake bread all day while her friends dropped by her home for a visit at various intervals. I remember thinking, "Huh. Neat."
I had never baked a loaf of yeasted bread before, but I knew what was involved. I could imagine the simple baking aromas filling Lisa's kitchen, and I could picture people ringing the doorbell just as a fresh loaf was coming out of the oven. They'd be encouraged to sit down and stay awhile. The bread would be sliced while still warm and topped with butter. Maybe they'd drink tea and chat while my professor moved on to the next batch of dough, kneading until the substance came together and was set aside to rise in the heat of the warm spring afternoon.
Although I've yet to have that kind of birthday, I did start baking bread from scratch several years ago. And it turns out that there is a therapeutic element to the process. Noting that "baking isn't all about the frivolous," Susie Mesure, in a piece for The Independent, explains that bakeries are being set up all over to help people cope with various challenges, from learning disabilities to mental illness. In England, for example, Yeatman Hospital runs a therapeutic baking group for its elderly patients suffering from dementia.
There is truly something amazing about putting a few ingredients together and watching them come alive and change drastically by the sheer will of your own powerful hands. It took getting over my fear of working with yeast — what if my dough didn't rise? — to get me in the kitchen and kneading. The process is difficult to explain yet super easy to do. I've included a YouTube video because I think a visual is helpful in this case.
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
The thing about working your base into a supple, ready-to-rise form is very much about time investment. My standard bread based on a Nigella Lawson recipe calls for kneading the dough for approximately ten minutes. That is precious time. No texting, no checking e-mail, no picking up after the kids, no throwing in a load of laundry. Once you get the hang of the whole kneading thing, it's a mostly thoughtless effort, but that's the beauty of it. Your mind can wander — call it day-dreaming — but your body cannot. You must be fully present in carrying out the task at hand.
Because it's my favorite part of the process, I haven't been able to wrap my brain around the no-knead recipes that appear to exist as enticements for home cooks who simply cannot be bothered to deal with their handmade product. I love master baker Jim Lahey's breads and pastries as much as the next New Yorker, but I reject his no-fuss recipe in favor of getting my hands dirty. I also have no need for a Kitchen-Aid outfitted with a dough hook, and please don't get me started on the bread-making machine. There's a calming element to doing it all on your own. And, while it's not arduous, not really, it is wildly rewarding. It'll be interesting to see how baking continues to emerge as a trend in some facets of psychotherapy.
I encourage you to undertake the fundamental process of baking a loaf of bread in your own home. Even if it does not emerge from the oven as a perfect-looking loaf (do not expect to produce bakery-like bread with your domestic tools), it has potential to nourish your body and your mind. Enjoy the first warm slice, spread with peanut butter and a drizzle of wildflower honey.