Struan bread

For me the hardest seasons are the ones of stillness, of waiting. The times when you want bullet points and progress and contingency plans, and that quiet voice says again, Wait.

It’s that wise reluctance. Wait.

It’s the opposite of procrastinating, those times when you know the answer, but you put it off—for reasons you’ll figure out tomorrow.

This kind of waiting happens when you don’t know the right answer. Or the timing isn’t right yet. Or your bank account is still too empty. It’s the opposite of Carpe Diem. It’s sit on the carpet for a while and play with Legos.

Or bake a loaf of bread, as the case may be.

I have for years owned a couple cookbooks on baking bread, one a purchase and the other a gift, but last week was the very first time I kneaded and baked my own. Before breakfast I marched my toddler and baby in a stroller to the grocery store to buy the necessary ingredients, and throughout the course of the day we chipped away at the recipe until the house smelled of sweet yeast and crust and goodness. It smelled like my sanity coming back.

Seasons of stillness are so challenging for me because only the outside world is stationary. Inside, my mind is ruminating at high speed. It’s like having twin jet engines revving next to my eardrums. The internal hummm-thrummm-thrummm is so noisy it drowns out all other thought. Focused activities are a lost cause.

These are the times to run, walk, or do work with your hands. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, in the motion of your legs or arms you break through the turbulent agitation into a pocket of clear sky. I’m learning it’s usually in that order: First the agitation, then the calm. And in the calm that opens up, I wish you could feel the relief. It’s like breathing with new lungs. It’s worth baking bread every day.

Bird silhouette in a tree

A friend of mine has a tattoo of a dove on her foot, the kind of demure tattoo whose message is clearly pointed inward, not outward. I asked her what it meant.

She told me it was a reminder of the story of Noah and the Ark, when he and his family and all those animals two by two stared out at the endless floodwaters. In the vast ocean stretching from horizon to horizon, the situation looked hopeless, until one day a dove returned to the boat with a fresh olive leaf in its beak. She said she has faced her oceans and the unsalvageable situations that God somehow redeemed. I suppose that simple ink outline of a dove was her way of spelling “faith” into her skin.

I’m learning the floodwaters have their place. All the waiting has its job. The night is not nothingness. It is not absence. It has its own purpose. Even if it’s only so you weep with gladness when the dawn begins to blush the sky pink.

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There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

I welcome parables wherever I can find them. My older son who is approaching three years has become a devotee of Curious George and his mischievous mayhem. In one episode of the cartoon, George mixes up all the vegetable and fruit seeds into a mason jar, and then realizes that he has no way of knowing what is what for the spring garden.

Curious George uses the scientific method to sort the seeds and re-identify each of them—all before getting into any real trouble, of course. (Chef Pisghetti even cooks him an Italian feast to reward his efforts.)

In real life, there are no promises of happy endings. The seeds are harder to distinguish, harder to discern. More often you hold a jumble of mustard and poppy seeds in your hand, rolling the dried shells between your fingers, uncertain whether they will grow a tree or opium.

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I’m learning to trust that, with time, truth rises to the top. Slowly, slowly—and then sometimes in a sudden rush at once—the next step will become clear. No amount of cursing, nail biting, or sleepless nights staring at the gibbous moon can speed the truth, and no one besides you can see it and know, There it is.

So give the yeast time to rise.

Let the seed be what it will be.

All you can do is wait.

Struan bread

Struan

Recipe courtesy of Brother Peter Reinhart, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book

Yield: Makes three 1½-pound loaves

7 cups high-gluten bread flour

½ cup uncooked polenta

½ cup rolled oats

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup wheat bran

4 teaspoons salt, preferably sea salt

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon instant yeast, or 3 tablespoons active dry yeast

½ cup cooked brown rice

¼ cup honey

¾ cup buttermilk

Approximately 1 ½ cups water (the amount of water varies according to the moistness of the rice and the accuracy of the measurements of the dry ingredients)

3 tablespoons poppy seeds, for decoration

Mixing

In a bowl mix all of the dry ingredients, including the salt and yeast. Add the cooked brown rice, honey, and buttermilk and mix. Then add 1 cup of the water, reserving about ½ cup for adjustments during kneading. With your hands squeeze the ingredients together until they make a ball. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and turn the ball out of the bowl and begin kneading. Add small quantities of water as needed.

Kneading

Because struan has so many whole grains, it takes longer to knead than most breads, usually 12 to 15 minutes. The dough will change before your eyes, lightening in color, becoming gradually more elastic and evenly grained. The finished dough should be tacky but not sticky, lightly golden, stretchy and elastic rather than porridgelike. When you push the heels of your hands into the dough, it should give way but not necessarily tear. If it flakes or crumbles, add a little more water.

Proofing

Wash out the mixing bowl and dry it thoroughly. Put in the dough and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap or place the bowl inside a plastic bag. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, until it has roughly doubled in size.

Forming Loaves

This recipe makes about 5 pounds of dough (81 ounces, to be exact); to make 3 loaves of 1½ pounds each, cut the dough into 3 pieces—each will weigh 27 ounces. Roll up each piece into a loaf by pressing on the center with the heels of the hands and rolling the dough back over itself until a seam is formed. Tuck all the pieces of dough or ends flaps into the seam, sealing it as best you can and put the loaf, seam-side down, in greased pan that measures 9 inches by 4½ inches by 3 inches. Brush an egg wash solution (1 egg beaten into 4 cups water) on the top of each loaf and sprinkle poppy seeds on top. Cover and allow the dough to rise at room temperature until it crests over the top of the pan, which should take about 1 hour.

Baking

Bake in a 350 degree F oven (300 degrees if yours is a convection oven) for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf should dome nicely and be a dark gold. The sides and bottoms should be a uniform medium gold and there should be an audible, hollow thwack when you tap the bottom of the loaf.

If the bread comes out of the pan dark on top but too light or soft on the sides or bottom, take the loaf out of the pan, return it to the oven, and finish baking until it is thwackable. Bear in mind that the bread will cook much faster once it is removed from the pan, so keep a close eye on it.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly for at least 40 minutes before slicing it.

Notes:

  • Proof active dry yeast first in 4 tablespoons lukewarm water.
  • Trader Joe’s sells pre-cooked frozen packets of brown rice that come in handy for the small quantity called for in this recipe.
  • Remember the oven spring. Do not put loaves on a shelf where they could rise into the ceiling, nor too low near the flame or coil where the bottoms could get burned.
  • If the heat in your oven is not even (in most it is not), it will be necessary to rotate the loaves halfway through. If you are baking more loaves than will fit on one shelf, rotate the pans from shelf to shelf and give them a half-turn so that each side of the loaf gets equal heat.