Zen and the art of breadmaking

WordPress has informed me that last week was my 3-year anniversary for this blog.  That’s kind of hard to believe, since it feels to me like it was simultaneously yesterday, and ten years ago that I made a long weekend trip to Helsinki for the first time.  I remember telling my friends in London that I was skipping class on Friday to go to Finland.  We were sitting in the cozy lounge of Natura Cafe in New Cross, sipping coffees and relaxing after class.  It seems like that was a whole different life; I’ve been feeling lately that about every year or so I seem to be in a different chapter of life, and everything changes drastically.  I have to admit that it’s exhausting to be doing that so frequently, and having no way to predict what is happening on the next page.  But hindsight is a kind of scrapbook, and as little as I feel like I’ve accomplished over the past several years, it seems like a lot when I go back and think about it.


I’ve been trying to get into a new schedule for several weeks now owing to a new job that takes up a lot of time.  I started out with a lot of free time while I’m here, and coming up empty and discouraged after the last round of grant announcements, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to get a job–something part-time that would allow me to make a little bit of money with my free time while still focusing on the things that are important: my “real” job (ironically) and spending time with family.   I’m grateful for the opportunity to make some money, but I didn’t expect to be going straight to full-time with pressure to do overtime, so I kind of just agreed to it before thinking through how much time I would be losing.

I’m not really a morning person, although having lived in Finland definitely makes me appreciate every hour of light I get.  Waking up at 5am has not been as hard as I had thought, but by the afternoon I’m tired of concentrating, tired of sitting at a desk, and there are only a few hours of daylight left.  It’s also seemed that there hasn’t been much time for my real work, as there’s always something to be done in the afternoon and evening, and by the time I make another pot of coffee, check my emails, chat with family and do a load of laundry or dishes, it’s time for dinner and by then, I have no cognitive energies left.  What makes it worse is that I can’t seem to spend just an hour or two on it, and I’m not sure if that’s just me and my brain, or if high-level academics are like this for everyone.  The kind of thing I’m doing is just so complicated that not having it as a day job at the moment means it takes me longer to wrench my brain back into neuro mode, and by the time I’m up-to-date mentally on what I need to be doing, I don’t have time to actually do it.

I’m trying to set aside days when I can work for several hours uninterrupted, mostly at an adorable local cafe called Book Bums, or in the dining room with a steaming mug of Java Mate or Moscow Nights from Churchill’s.  I work until I’m too hungry to think anymore, and by then I’m so exhausted that it’s impossible to do anything else in the evening but have dinner and go to bed, and then start again early the next morning.

Lately it’s been feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day.  I’ve been managing to get to my day job, work a few hours on my studies, go to weekly yoga, update this blog every once in a while, mostly keep in touch with friends, and hopefully finish my Christmas cards in time.  But there are other things I really want to be doing, not to mention ideally getting my studies done faster.  I want to practice music again, but I don’t have the time or the privacy to play.  I want to finish my mittens at some point in the near future, but haven’t had the time or energy for more than a few rows of practice stitches.  And I’ve been seriously slacking on the housework, which doesn’t endear you to people who are doing you a favor, even if they are family.  There’s a lot of psychological pressure and stress that comes down on you when you don’t have your own space.  It’s part of the reason teenagers will flip out unexpectedly and want to get out of the house–it’s about privacy and ownership.  When you live in somebody else’s house, it feels like nothing is yours, not even the space allocated to you.  And as an adult, after having lived alone and having that privacy and ownership and even more importantly, agency–it’s a really stressful situation even when things are going well.  I need some things that give me a sense of control, I need to unwind and relax while still feeling constructive (avoiding grad student guilt), so lately my thing has been breadbaking.

Bread seems to be the evil monster in the era of gluten-free everything.  I’m neither entirely for or entirely against gluten; personally, I think the real problem is the way agriculture is run these days, with pesticides, GMO’s, hormones, etc. As food scientists love to point out, a piece of produce being genetically modified isn’t a problem per se–humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years by artificial selection.  It’s how we’re modifying them now that’s the problem.

But I still believe in the power of bread, which Jeffrey Steingarten says, can sustain life itself.  It comes in myriad varieties and crops up in every culture around the world: flatbreads, pizza, crusty French bread, dry ryes and nutty wholegrain, American quickbreads–banana nut and raisin and cinnamon swirl, zucchini and pumpkin and all the varieties of muffin; flat corn and flour tortillas, chewy naan, chapati and puffy poori, the odd but addicting idli (obviously I love Indian food), bread made from quinoa and spelt and barley and oats and cassava and powdered tree pulp in the Amazon.  We eat it for three meals a day plus snacks, we put it in puddings and in pies, we make sandwiches and stuff it with other food.  Americans have had a weird obsession with bread, which reached its zenith in the latter part of the 20th century with the temporary collective insanity that was everything “loaf.”  Meatloaf, ham loaf, fruit loaves, vegetable loaves.  Shrimp loaf.  “Loaf” is a really horrible word anyway.  It conjures up the feeling of sweaty, dusty old shoes or a musty overstuffed armchair with somebody’s butt print on the seat.  I could never get behind meatloaf; I don’t have any respect for foods that can’t decide if they are bread or meat.

I’ve never been very good at making bread.  Sure, I can work a breadmaker, but who can’t?  That’s just following directions–that’s putting together IKEA furniture, not baking.  And I have a pathological need to disobey recipes anyway, which bodes rather badly for the seemingly precise art of breadmaking.  It’s my own small anarchy.  My thought is that if I truly understand the chemistry behind the recipe, I should be able to modify it and have it still turn out.  Bread is more complicated than cookies and pasta, but lately I’ve decided to try, anyway, a decision that was first put into mind by a craving for ruisleipä as the weather gets colder, and quickly snowballed into a drive to make something of myself as a home breadmaker.  To understand bread.

I found a recipe online for traditional ruisleipä, which to me is the quintessential scent and flavour of Finland.  It’s a round loaf, flattish, dark brown and cracked organically in the middle, with a thin roasty-tasting crust and a crumb that crumbles when you break it.  It’s hard and dry, and cut into thin slices slathered with cream cheese and cured fish, and eaten for breakfast, will put meat on your bones.  It’s what the air in the city smells like first thing in the morning: dry, sharp, dark and malty, giving you in an instant the history of a people that tells the story of hardship and survival, tradition, frigid winter air and warm hearths, togetherness, remembrance.  To me, ruisleipä means sisu.


It’s different from an American rye in that it consists entirely of rye flour, something all rye bread recipes (except one, apparently) warn against.  Rye flour has very little gluten, and the gluten in wheat flour is what gives bread its chewy, bready texture.   In general, the more gluten that develops, the chewier and better texture the bread will have.  Gluten develops primarily in two ways: one by kneading the dough, which folds the strands of gluten in onto each other, forming longer and more tangled strands, and two, by fermentation, which happens as yeast consumes the sugars and give off gas that make bubbles and holes in the dough.  Sourdough breads require less kneading, since long fermentation is part of their basic instructions and also helps to develop that recognizable sweet-tangy flavor and scent.

Unfortunately, bread is also affected by a whole host of environmental variables: temperature of the water, of the air, air circulation, the quality and age of the flour (not to mention the flour type; wholegrain flours are notoriously difficult to use), measurement techniques, how long you knead it, how long it rises, how many times you knead and rise, and even the kneading technique itself.  I also believe that, like macarons, meringues, souffles, Christmas trees, custards, jelly rolls, oboe reeds, and horses, bread knows if you are relaxed or not and will lash out at you with a vengeance if you aren’t in the right state of mind when you try to deal with it.  Hurried bread is never good bread.  You know what they say about making pie crust: it requires cold hands and a warm heart.  Bread and pie crust are chemically on opposite sides of the spectrum ( you should work with pie crust as little as possible to avoid developing gluten, which makes it tough, but rather try to work in large amounts of fat unevenly, versus bread, which holds a long tradition of tricks to develop the gluten, and which, when made simply, contains no fat at all), but they both require attention to detail and a little finesse.


Still, these variables are even more reason I believe that the best cook knows how to make things by the feel, not by slavishly adhering to a recipe.  Most bread recipes will tell you to measure by weight, which is true–measuring by weight is better than by volume, especially for fluffy ingredients like flour.  But what about the contribution of humidity, temperature, how fresh (or not so fresh) your flour is, or the phase of the moon (kidding, but not really)?  So I prefer to learn recipes by the feel of them.  And I always say, I never know how long to cook anything; I just say, cook it till it’s done.  Do you know what it looks like when it’s done?  Cook it till it looks like that.  If you don’t know, go eat it in a restaurant first, then cook it so it looks like that.

This is all not to say that when I cook or bake, everything always turns out perfectly.  In fact, things turn out perfectly fairly rarely, but I can usually make things edible.  Imperfectly delicious.  Rustic.  As my middle school band director always used to say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.  It sounds hokey, but it’s usually true, and it jives with many other traditional true-isms, like stop and smell the roses, or rolling stones gather no moss.  Actually, I’m not sure if the moss is supposed to be good or bad, but you’ll never know if you roll on by without stopping to see.  In breadmaking, it’s definitely about the process, especially with these old-fashioned sourdoughs that can take days, or even better, weeks, to make one loaf.

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I like to find lessons in the little things in life; I think it’s part of a spiritual connection to the world, and it keeps us grounded.  I thought my sudden obsession with breadmaking had come about because I was craving ruisleipä, but after successfully making some, I realized that while it satisfied that specific craving, what I really sought was meaning in the journey.


I have two sourdough starters now, a pure rye and a wheat converted from the original rye.  I like taking care of them, planning ahead and watching them transform slowly from gloopy puddles of potential into beautiful crackly, chewy, warm bundles of nourishment, with a handful of flour and little love from me.  I can relate to them, since I often feel like a gloopy puddle of unrealized potential too.

It’s so easy to give great advice but avoid taking your own, and especially in this day and age, to compare ourselves to our peers.  The media makes things worse, spreading the idea that our generation is lazy and entitled, but nobody wants to be a burden to others.  I used to think that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about living life, and if you weren’t doing it perfectly, you were failing.  But as I get further into grown-up life, I’m realizing that we’re all in this together–we’re all just trying to get by as best we can.  In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to slip into demanding things right now, and expecting that things in life will happen just that quickly and easily.  Don’t they say that nothing good in life comes easy?

Maybe I’m a little sensitive about this issue because of society’s publicizing the image of the lazy millenial, although I think (I hope) that image is changing.  Nevertheless, people my age are struggling with this feeling that we’re not contributing to society, that we’re just mooches and should be further along the path in adulthood.  At least in my experience, my generation is splitting into two: the ones who married young, settled down and started having babies, who have houses and long-term, respectable jobs; and us, the perpetual students or the careerpeople who forego getting a head start on the family in order to pursue our ambitions first.  Which, ironically, often ends up with us back at our parents’ or barely scraping by, feeling a bit cheated by our prestigious and very expensive degrees.  And this difference is really polarizing; at the worst, it leads to two separate groups of people who for the most part don’t mix.  We’ve now become two very distinct demographics, and often end up losing friends to the split.

It doesn’t help that we demonize each other for our decisions, which I think just serves to make everyone feel jealous and insecure about themselves.  Speaking of feeling insecure, I recently had a grass-is-always-greener conversation with my cousins and then a few friends, who all agreed that it’s very true for people our age.  It was a bit of a revelation to me, because I had never really thought about how other people saw my grass other than to assume they saw it the same way I did.  In my own eyes it’s always been a Charlie Brown Christmas tree-style tuft of crabgrass, and a lot of the time I feel like I’m trying to pass it off as an authentic Bonsai with smoke and mirrors.  My peers have lawns full of well-groomed turf, which I might find a bit boring, but at least they have grass at all!


I also recently had a conversation that brought up speech acts, the idea from cognitive linguistics and semiotics that by making a statement, you have enacted a real effect on society.  The concept is seen a lot in things like marriage proposals (“we’re engaged!”), but also in proclamations like “I’m hungry” that change the listener’s theory of your mind; it’s true because you said it.  It’s funny how psychology works, that for as much as we’re concerned about figuring out other people’s minds, the hardest part is dealing with our own.  And in the same way that gestures are often used to help the speaker think rather than the listener to understand, speech acts can also be used to convince yourself of a truth you know but maybe don’t fully accept.  You see this in therapy a lot, in trying to build self-confidence and self-image, and in mantras.

I don’t know if it’s the usual holiday blues or if four months (as of this week!) of not doing what I want to be doing is finally catching up with me.  A few people, even well-meaning friends, have asked if I’m going to keep trying to make a career in research or pointed out the pretty sorry state of academics. As dumb as this is going to sound, it had never actually occurred to me to stop trying and do something else.  I’ve literally always known I was going to be a PhD and a researcher.  As a kid I knew everything about fossils and mummies and insects.  I was a paleontologist for career day and was the only girl to touch the fossilized dinosaur poop when the real paleontologist came to visit, and permanently checked out a book called Beneath Blue Waters which had me convinced for a good six or eight years that I was going to be a deep-sea oceanographer; obviously, my favourite author was Jules Verne.  I did a book report on A Brief History of Time when I was thirteen.  I did a project on the evolution of the horse through twelve different species, with clay models (combining arts and sciences, of course), I got a hundred and fourteen percent on my insect study in high school, and then when my honors anatomy and physiology class did a histology project, I spent forty-eight minutes staring, captivated, at a neuron under the microscope.  That was when I realized I was destined for neuroscience.

So to hear the option of just quitting and doing something else was a bit of a shock.  And it got me thinking in a more utilitarian way: maybe I’m not cut out for this, or maybe I just have bad karma.  Surely other, far better scientists than me have been driven out of the field.  Surely it would be better for everyone if I just found a job, any job, as soon as possible and stopped being a burden on my family and my research team.


And then last weekend I saw the new movie about Stephen Hawking, and it really put all my struggles into perspective.  I was aware of his story, having read some of his books, but seeing it play out on screen and now rereading anecdotes about his life when he was my age and in my place–all the usual social struggles of twenty-somethings, and a tendency to be lazy about things that are too easy or not interesting enough, brief flashes of insight and long nights blasting music (although we disagree about Wagner), long conversations with colleagues at the pub, the emotional rollercoaster of judgment by advisors, and the peculiar relationships you form with those peers and advisors, like a team of apprentices competing and at the same time supporting one another, advisors taking on a sort of parental role, in a workshop where your craft is your own mind.  I relate to that.  It gave me a new burst of enthusiasm, that on a social and personal level, this is where I feel at home.

And on a professional level, it reiterated that nothing worth doing is ever easy.  As much as people like to say they are, careers in STEM fields are not lucrative right now.  Careers in app development, in the industry, are lucrative, and that’s not the same thing.  As I’ve pointed out before, we need research and we need education reform and we need to keep pushing for better funding of the arts and sciences. But like Stephen, I have a conviction that what I’m doing is worth something.  My research is important, and it’s necessary, and it’s valuable, both to today’s society in terms of therapy but also to humanity in general, because the search for knowledge is a noble one.  It’s not easy, and it’s not fast, but it is worth it in the end, because it’s one of the things that makes us human.  And it’s the main reason I’m studying what I am–because language and music are two of the most human traits, and they’re important to us.  I believe in the gut feeling, and my gut says I have something important to contribute.  So I’m going to keep trying.

I think this is what my bread is trying to tell me: that sometimes you just have to let things happen as they will. Sometimes it takes a little longer to develop structure and flavour to its fullest potential, and you might not get what you had intended in the first place.  But if you keep trying, and you give it warmth and a little time, you will end up with something wonderful.


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