Bread of Life

Making bread requires the acceptance of both the imperfect and the impermanent, says Elissa Altman. She shares her thoughts on the meditative process of bread making and a recipe for a bloomer loaf.

Elissa Altman
8 May 2020
Photo by Lauren Gray.

Round, long, braided, dark, light, sour, sweet. Ancient Roman warriors were said to have pressed flattened dough onto their shields to bake in the hot Mediterranean sun while at rest from battle, thus creating the world’s first pizza. Apocryphal, perhaps, because every people from east to west and north to south produced a version of flat bread, from lavash and pita in the Middle East to fermented Injera in Africa and Kulcha in India. In whatever form it comes — from the largest French sourdough boule to the smallest, most mundane white flour dinner roll — the making of bread properly necessitates a slow-down. It requires a focus on nothing else, a meditation on feel and texture, a balance, and the push and pull of hands and body against resistant, often non-compliant dough.

Bread necessitates the acceptance of the imperfect and the impermanent.

In its most elemental form, bread is little more than water, flour, a leavening agent (or not), and time. The making of bread requires patience, or ksanti, one of the six paramitas, or transcendent perfections. We want instant success but must have the gentle forbearance that anchors us in breath, to which the word bread is so etymologically close.

Bread necessitates the acceptance of the imperfect and the impermanent. Starters fail; doughs rise and fall; the results are dense as a brick or light as a pillow; left to stand a day too long, and dusty white spots fleck the surface of the crust, indicating its impending rot. And yet, bread is transformative nearly everywhere, signifying the start of the Sabbath for some and the body of Christ for others.

We break bread to welcome guests to our table. We sit down alone in the dim light of a quiet early morning, apply heat (toaster; broiler; open flame) to a slice of bread no matter its solidity. It evolves and emerges brown and crisp, we swipe sweet butter or fruit jam from edge to edge, or top it with a fried egg or a slab of baked tofu and slivered radishes. Our day has begun: elemental sustenance rooted in the growing and harvesting of grain, its milling and grinding, its mixing and folding, kneading and dusting, and waiting.

Bread is history, and bread is time. Bread is patience.

Recipe: A Bloomer Loaf

Originally published by the late British food writer Elizabeth David and then adapted by the late American novelist/food writer, Laurie Colwin in her essay collection, Home Cooking, a bloomer loaf is a wonderful bread to learn on. It’s extremely forgiving and not at all cranky, it can sit for short or longer periods of time (much like me, in meditation) and is therefore ideal for busy lay schedules. The result is a baton-shaped loaf, slashed diagonally across its top. It makes wonderful toast — rub a hot slice of Bloomer bread with a raw clove of garlic and drizzle it with olive oil and pinch of flakey salt — and will fill your kitchen with mouthwatering aromas.

Makes 1 loaf

  • 1-1/2 cups unbleached white flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1-1/2 cups stone ground whole wheat flour
  • ¾ cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon corn meal
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
  • 1-1/2 cups warm water (or 1-1/2 cups milk, or a combination of the two)

In a large bowl, mix together the flours, corn meal, and salt, and set aside.

Mix the yeast into the liquid, and let rest for five minutes, until it begins to bloom.

Make a well in the center of the flours, and pour in the liquid, blending it well. The dough should begin to come together, and should be neither overly sticky nor dry; if it is too sticky, sprinkle in a little additional flour, a teaspoon at a time.

Turn the dough out onto a floured cutting board, and knead it well for eight minutes, pushing and pulling it, folding the ends over each other, turning it ninety degrees, and repeating. Roll it in flour, place it in a warm bowl, cover it lightly with a clean linen kitchen table, put it aside, and let it rest and rise for a few hours.

Turn it out onto a floured board, punch the dough down, knead it for another five minutes, shape it into a baton (or a baguette), slash the top with four diagonal cuts, brush with a little water, and let it rest again for ten minutes.

While the dough is resting, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Place the dough on a lightly oiled baking sheet or a pizza stone, and bake for half an hour. Reduce the heat to 425 degrees F and continue to bake for another twenty minutes. The finished bread should have a hollow thunking sound when tapped on its bottom.

Let the loaf cool on a rack, before serving with softened sweet butter, and a small bowl of flakey sea salt.

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman is the author of, most recently, Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing; Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw; and Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, and won a James Beard Award for the narrative blog of the same name. When she is not writing or cooking, she practices Insight Meditation from her home in New England. You can find more about her at