Life meanwhile—real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passions—went on as usual, independently of and apart from political friendship or enmity… -Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)
If my last post was grounded in the mood of the ever-growing resistance to the new American political reality, this post can’t help but convey the pure exhaustion of living in it. Seriously, I don’t know about you, but I am tired. One day it’s pomp, pageantry and games of “guess who’s joining the Supreme Court”; the next it’s an angry Tweet-a-thon. I can already see future seminars on American history with graduate students poring over glowing tablets filled with thousands of pages of 140 characters worth of ire, trying to understand why 2017 was the year when America, if not the world, lost the plot. Believe me when I say that the very fact that I am nodding to a future belies an optimism that I don’t necessarily feel. 

There is certainly something to be said for being kept on your toes, though. It leads to a certain civic involvement that you maybe didn’t feel when, in your mind, things were going well. Until recently, for example, I had never a) watched a Cabinet confirmation hearing, b) called and emailed senators to try to persuade them not to support a candidate or measure, c) volunteered for any political candidate (there is a special election on February 25 that will determine which party controls the Delaware State Senate), d) watched a Daily White House press briefing, and e) so actively donated to organizations that I believe in. Of course, my efforts (and those of millions of others) regarding Betsy DeVos failed, but Puzder is out, which feels like a small, but welcome victory. And who knows how upcoming special election will turn out, but I felt that there was something empowering  and humbling about picking up a burner phone and, while sitting in a cold room at a local school with my husband, calling multiple numbers and making a sales pitch to strangers. One woman, one of the first I actually got through to, started yelling at me when she heard I was calling on behalf of the Democratic party: “Are you people just going to roll over and confirm all of his nominees? How are you going to fight? The man is crazy; I don’t feel safe!” Seventeen minutes, several outbursts and several apologies later–it took some time to explain that I was calling her because I was angry too- I had convinced her to check out the candidate and had given her a rough roadmap to making her voice heard. Another woman hung up on the Greek because she was sick of politics. A twenty-year-old girl listened, but told me she wasn’t into “this kind of thing.” It almost felt like she was suggesting I was offering her something both illicit and really dull, but I didn’t persist (no Liz-reference intended) or try to convince her otherwise and not because I agreed with her, but because it’s exhausting to insist that everybody should feel or think the same way that you do about things. 

But not every waking moment can be devoted to politics or spent waiting for the next scandal to drop (as a quick aside, that, I just want to say that, despite all the gory details of the whole Michael Flynn/Trump/Russia debacle, I have been getting most agitated not by the question of who knew what and when, but by the way that reporters have been pronouncing Putin: Piu–as in pyou–tin instead of the proper Poo, as in Winnie–tin. The man has been in the news for years; if George W could handle this one, today’s journalists can too). There are optometry appointments to go to, classes to take at the gym and activities like mandatory jury duty to keep us busy. Despite the various ways that I can and do spend my time, I am still very much a believer in the healing and restorative power of the kitchen. And, lately, there have been all sorts of comfort foods coming out of my kitchen: Thai curries, a blood orange cake as dense as a cheesecake, lots and lots of dumplings, different soups, a three-course Indian feast for Valentine’s day dinner…But my real love these days, or, what I would call my coping mechanism du jour, is baking bread. It’s all about a minimal amount of ingredients and patience and is quite possibly the most elemental kind of baking there is.
It’s not like I haven’t dabbled in bread baking in the past (thisthis and this post can attest to that, as well as many undocumented efforts), but this time I have gotten even more serious about it. I’ve been religiously studying Jeffrey Hamelman’s (of King Arthur Flour) seminal book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques, reading about rye baking (Stanley Ginsberg‘s The Rye Baker reads like a novel) and creating a rye starter and also exploring the world of Israeli bread with Uri Scheft‘s Breaking Breads. It’s kind of like a self-directed, one-woman seminar on bread baking and, consequently, is not without a fair amount of trial and error. My whole wheat honey bread from Hamelman’s book would have been perfect had I not burned myself as I rotated the loaves and then underbaked them; of course, had I not first overheated the oven, they wouldn’t have sprung so high that one loaf was getting scorch marks from hitting the top of the oven rack, leading me to believe that they were ready to be removed from the oven (the “knocking on the bottom of the loaf to see if it sounds hollow” test is not foolproof; thanks to this experience, I will now forevermore use a thermometer). The whole wheat pecan and raisin loaves that I baked last week were nicely textured with a good crumb, but, if you were to look at their bottoms, you would see the bread baker’s equivalent of cellulite: visible seams (sad!). The Greek brushes aside all of the flaws that I point out, happily toasting and buttering any bread that I put before him, but me, I long for a perfectly textured and shaped loaf. 
Maybe I’m simply asking for too much too fast. I recognize it’s quite possible that, in some ways, I’m attempting to bake bread a little above my skill level. While I’ve mastered cakes and cupcakes and all kinds of savory cooking (a different skill set from baking in and of itself), I still sometimes falter with doughs–pie and bread alike–which perhaps stems from a general weakness relating to symmetry and shaping (the same can be said of my relationship to clay, another elemental “dough” of sorts). But the simple truth is that the only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice and so, whenever something annoys me in the news, I now find myself gravitating to one of the many bread books stacked around the kitchen and to my pantry full of flour. This is how, the weekend after the executive order regarding the travel ban was issued, I found myself in the kitchen on a Sunday morning crumbling fresh yeast into warm warm and mixing chopped dill and onions into springy dough. 

I couldn’t help but want to bake the Dill Bread in Scheft’s Breaking Breads. Not only am I a sucker for herbed loaves (the Italian Herb Loaves in Carol Field’s The Italian Baker are a favorite), but the description (and the accompanying photo) of this bread compelled me to make it: “[It] is formed into a coil and then snipped with scissors to create the shape of a flower (kishlaya), which is how challah is traditionally shaped [on the island of] Djerba, Tunisia.” While I have seen many things done with bread and have recently gotten excited about the possibility of “artisan bread stenciling” (I am not there yet, but one day!), I have never attempted to do anything this elaborate in my own kitchen, so, naturally, it seemed high time that I try. This was, I can now say with the help of hindsight, if not a mistake, then something like a miscalculation on my part. The truth is that this bread is one of the most advanced recipes in the book; if you’re not the most experienced in the ways of shaping, you may run into some problems rolling out coils that should be no less than 40 inches long and ideally, so that your kishlaya don’t rise or bake lopsided, should maintain the same thickness throughout. But despite our lack of technique, the Greek and I managed to create coils and loaves that, upon emerging from the oven, did resemble flowers (that said, we cheated with the third loaf, which we couldn’t bring ourselves, or our tired arms, to shape into the required pyramid; we shaped it into a batard and put it in a loaf pan and, you know what, it was perfectly edible) and had fun doing so. The golden loaves, imperfect though they were, were both the result of teamwork and a true kitchen project–rewarding and involved–but that was the point. For a few hours on that sunshine-filled Sunday, we were distracted. We worried not about the madness in the world at large, but about things, about the making of our daily bread–in this case a lightly and pillowy pull-apart bread scented with the freshness of dill– that were solely within our power.

It felt good, rejuvenating and right, an antidote to the age of exhaustion in which we find ourselves. Consider this the first post in a monthly series on the blog on bread baking; I’m certainly no expert, but that’s not to say I won’t be consulting them and that we also can’t learn from each other.

Tunisian Dill Bread

Makes three small loaves
From Uri Scheft’s Breaking Breads

Depending on how experienced you are with bread baking–I am, as I have said, a novice–you may or may not know that every baker seems to have a preferred and different way of developing gluten. While most professional bakers love using stand mixers for the initial kneading, and preferably Kitchen Aid at that, it is at the next step when methods seems to differ. Hamelman likes to let the bread rest and then fold it; Lahey, very (ironically) hands off given his profession, is famous for the “no-knead” method; Field is wonderfully old-fashioned and simply prefers to knead as your grandmothers most likely would have kneaded their loaves; the bakers behind the Hot Bread Kitchen suggest letting the mixer do all of the work; and Scheft likes to knead the way he learned from his mother, by stretching, tearing and pushing the dough away from him before folding it back on itself (he says this leads to better gluten development without overtaxing your arms). If you’re not familiar with this method (I was not and am not sure that, even with the visual aids in the book, I did it correctly), it might be a little tricky at first, so feel free to modify how you knead the dough. The how shouldn’t matter as much as long as the gluten is being properly developed and, clearly, there are multiple ways to achieve this.  
      Also, for those of you on the east coast, I’ve discovered the joy of baking with fresh (baker’s) yeast, which I can find in the refrigerated section (near the yogurt and cheese) at my local ShopRite. It definitely leads to more flavor, so I would say it is worth looking for. 
      This is a long recipe–most of Scheft’s are–so if anything is unclear, please ask questions in the comments. 

For the dough: 

180 grams (3/4 cup) cool room-temperature water, or more as needed
35 grams fresh yeast (1/4 cup) or 2 1/2 teaspoons (12 grams) active dry yeast
840 grams (6 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more as needed
50 grams (1/4 cup) sugar
15 grams (1 tablespoon) fine sea salt
171 grams (3/4 cup) plain whole-milk yogurt
71 grams (5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
1 small yellow onion (50 grams), finely chopped
35 grams (roughly 2 cups) fresh dill fronds, finely chopped

For the egg wash:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Pinch fine sea salt

Combine the water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, whisking by hand until the yeast has dissolved. Add the flour, sugar, salt, yogurt and pieces of butter.

Attach the dough hook and knead on low speed until the dough comes together, 1 to 2 minutes. If, after 2 minutes, the dough has dry spots at the bottom of the bowl or the dough looks very wet, add more water or flour, a little at a time, as needed. Once the dough comes together nicely, continue to mix on low speed for 3 minutes. Then increase the mixer speed to medium and knead until the dough looks shiny and bounces off the side of the bowl, about 5 minutes, stopping after about two minutes to feel the dough with your hand. You don’t want it to get too hot, or “overwarmed,” as this might mean that the mixer is overworking the dough and disempowering the gluten. If it feels very warm to the touch, lightly flour the top of the dough, cover it with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 20-30 minutes. Once it has rested and cooled, turn the mixer back on and finish the initial kneading.

Lightly flour a work surface and set the dough on it. Lightly flour the top of the dough. Grab one edge of the dough and stretch the dough until it tears, then fold it on top of the center. Give the dough a quarter turn and continue the stretching, folding and turning for about 2 minutes. Use a bench scraper or chef’s knife to cut the dough into 12 roughly equal pieces, then return the pieces to the mixer bowl; Scheft points out that, breaking up the dough this way will help to incorporate the onion and dill.

Add the onion and dill; knead on low speed until they are well incorporated. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and fold again, giving it about four turns. Place the dough in a lightly floured large bowl, dust the top with flour and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature until it has doubled in volume, about an hour.

Transfer the dough to the lightly floured surface; divide it into 3 equal pieces (N.B. Use the kitchen scale as your guide). Firmly press down on each piece of dough with the heel of your hand to release the gas, and then pull it to make a 9-by-5-inch rectangle with a short side facing you. Fold the top edge (the one farthest away from you) a quarter of the way down and use the heel of your hand to seal along the edge of the bottom part of the folded dough. Repeat 3 more times to make a log. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. Use your hands to roll each piece to form a 20-inch-long rope, being careful not to over-flour the dough. Once the dough has been shaped, brush off any extra flour that remains to avoid creating streaks in the completed loaves. Cover the three ropes of dough with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 15 minutes.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Flatten each rope to a rectangle again and repeat the flattening process, folding the top down by a fourth, using the heel of your hand to seal along the edge, then repeating 3 times to make a log. Now use your hands to roll each log to make a 40-inch-long rope (the Greek and I did this on the counter, rolling the dough as you would clay or playdough, but the Washington Post, which wrote about this bread in late November, suggests that an easy way to stretch the dough is to hold one end in each hand and slowly twirl it as you would a jump rope). Again, brush off any excess flour that remains to avoid incorporating streaks of flour into the completed dough. Use clean kitchen scissors to snip (or a sharp knife to cut) diagonal slits three-quarters of the way through the dough at one-inch intervals.

Coil the snipped rope into a spiral shape, overlapping to create a pyramid–the base should be wide base, whereas the top will be narrow–and set it on the baking sheet. Gently pull the snipped segments apart, separating them from one another. Repeat with the other 2 ropes, creating two more coiled pyramids. Place the remaining coils on the other parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure to leave space between them.

Cover the pyramid-coils with kitchen towels and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the dough has risen and a slight press of the finger creates a lasting indentation (N.B. Scheft says that the dough will have been properly proofed when, if you press into it with your finger, it doesn’t spring back immediately and leaves a slight impression in the dough).

About 30 minutes before the loaves are ready to bake, set a rimmed baking sheet on the oven floor (or, if not possible, on the lowest oven rack), adjust the racks so that one is in the upper-middle and the other in the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg, water and salt together in a small bowl.

Uncover the coiled loaves and, using a pastry brush, lightly coat them with some of the egg wash. Place the two baking sheets in the oven. Pour 1/4 cup of water with two ice cubes in it into the rimmed baking sheet on the bottom of the oven and quickly close the oven door. Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the baking pans, turning them front to back for the last 5-8 minutes.

Set the baking sheets on a rack to cool. The bread, wrapped well in plastic, will keep for 3-4 days. The loaves can also be frozen and then defrosted; they will emerge as if they were just baked.

2 thoughts on “The Age of Exhaustion

  1. Nostalgia! For some dissertation-related reason, I have that quote memorized, and it's a rare moment of sweetness in memories of that trying time to dwell just on beautiful words and language. All that to say, Tolstoy, I love you still. Maybe I should reread War and Peace, just for comfort. Anyway! That bread looks amazing, and I am truly so impressed and excited by your bread experiments! I admit to many tinges of jealousy that our kitchen is still in a rather haphazard state (getting there! but not there yet). And yes, I so agree with you, I have never been a more engaged citizen, and I hope to be even more of one by the time this whole nightmare is over. But yes to working with our hands. Yes to breaking bread. Yes to love, in the form of bread, phone banking, and donating. XOXO

  2. This is so funny; I should have just texted you because, although I love this quote and always think of it when I think of “War and Peace,” I can never ever remember which volume and chapter it comes from…I quoted it in my dissertation (in the Sofia Andreevna section, I think), but I remember not being able to find it and standing in the bowels of Doe, desperately skimming “War and Peace.” I think an online search of the Russian text finally gave me the answer, but I had to go back down to figure out the proper page number. Oh, the days when proper citations were my biggest concern in life! I think rereading Tolstoy now would be a comfort; the man had no patience for “the slavery of patriotism.”

    And thank you for your kind words re the bread and my bread experiments in general; it is a lot of fun, but I had no idea how this loaf would work or what it would look like (the home baker just can't control the conditions as well as the professional one, nor do we have the benefit of daily practice. Maybe the next time I am living in a place that offers all kinds of bread making classes, I will take one–if for no other reason than to work on my technique (the visible seams *drive me crazy.*).

    And three cheers for being engaged citizens and for this nightmare eventually being over, even if it takes the full four years or midterms (2018 is the year Mary Poppins returns, so I am optimistic on all fronts for this year) end up providing the proper checks and balances…Until then, long live the courts and legal precedent!


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