Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bread and Fiction—A Recipe for Writers

Let’s have some fun, shall we? January is the blue Monday of the year, and this January especially, there are a lot of folks who need cheering up. As it will be several weeks before I can finish reading the first books slated for review this year, I thought it might be enjoyable in the interim, to do a few articles “off the beaten track” just for the sheer pleasure of it. Enjoy this one! (TAS)

To make pumpernickel rye, you will need the following ingredients:

4 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup caraway or anise seed (optional)
6 cups rye flour
4 cups white flour (with 1 additional cup held in reserve)

Place dry ingredients (yeast, salt, sugar, seeds) plus oil in large mixing bowl. Add water and combine. It is essential at this stage to make sure that all measurements are precise: the water must be exactly four cups—no more, no less—and it must be perfectly luke warm—if you place your finger in it, you should not be able to feel either heat or coolness. More than anything else you do or don’t do along the way, getting this fluid base exactly right at the start insures a satisfactory outcome.

Slowly, carefully, one cup at a time, add six cups of rye flour to the fluid base. Stir and combine. (I like to whip the batter at this point, as it results in a nice, fluffy texture when the bread comes out of the oven.) Then, slowly, gently, one cup at a time, add four cups of All Purpose flour. Note here that the stirring gets tough; the dough is thickening and coming together. (Optionally, you may imitate a dalek from Doctor Who exclaiming “Agglutinate! Agglutinate!”). The dough will begin to adhere into sticky clumps: with the mixing spoon—or clean bare hands as need be—work these clumps into a rough mass. Spread a little extra flour on the bench or table before turning the contents of the bowl out onto the bench. Cover the dough with the dome of the upturned mixing bowl, and allow the dough to rest for ten to twenty minutes before kneading.

Once the dough has had a chance to rest, it’s time to knead it. This manual process squeezes voids and air pockets out of the dough. Depending on conditions of ambient temperature and humidity, the dough may be quite sticky at this stage. Use some of the reserved “bench flour” to apply to these sticky areas. Slowly turn the dough and press at it with the heels of your hands—not your fingers!—turn, press and fold, sprinkle flour as needed, turn, press and fold, until the dough surface is consistently smooth and “silky” to the touch.

Press this nice smooth chunk of dough into the bottom of a clean mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and set it in a warm place. The best weather conditions for bread-rising are hot, muggy summer days, but you can simulate these conditions at other times of year by placing a pan of hot water under the mixing bowl, and covering both with a heavy towel. Let the dough rise—that is, allow the yeast to do its work—for one hour and thirty minutes.

When the bread has completed its first rising, dump the risen mass onto the bench, after putting down a little flour. With a clean serrated knife, divide the dough into four equal parts. The dough may, once again, have become sticky in places—as before, use small amounts of flour to “heal” and dry out these areas. Form each quarter into a small round loaf, rolling it steadily in your hands, tucking the dough underneath so as to form a beautiful smooth top. Set these quarter loaves onto a greased metal cookie sheet, cover with a heavy towel and allow to rise one more hour. (The pan of hot water is no longer needed.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. After the second rising, place the sheet with its loaves into the oven for forty (40) minutes. Remove the baked bread and transfer the loaves to cooling racks, baste the tops with butter, and allow to cool before cutting yourself a nice warm slice…

Some of you may be asking what any of this has to do with writing fiction … and I’m going to tell you. The recipe I’ve just shared can be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the process of writing fiction. Let’s explore. Remember how I said that the fluid base needs to be just so in order to ensure that something good ultimately comes out of the oven? In writing, too, you need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, grammar, spelling, punctuation. The more precise you are—the greater command you have of the fundamentals—the better your work will turn out, regardless of what kind of story you wish to tell.

The flour is like the idea for a story. In fact, several ideas may come together to form the basis for an interesting tale. If skillfully, thoroughly and thoughtfully combined, this mass of ideas, while a bit rough to begin with, will show a great deal of potential. But, just as the agglutinated mass needs a little time to rest before you knead it, so too, the writer needs to be patient in letting their imagination begin to do its work.

Some ideas need more work than others in order to form a solid story. Some disparate ideas resist coming together—make things ‘sticky’ as it were—and a bit of extra attention is required to work them in smoothly.  Patience again, as the dough rises or as the story expands and becomes more vivid in the writer’s imagination. The story is first told inside a writer’s head—it remains only for the author to write the story down…

The dough, formed into loaves is like a first draft. Many writers—Stephen King comes immediately to mind—say that it’s important to set aside the first draft for a time before doing re-writes. And so it is with the process of waiting as the dough rises to maturity. Eventually, you get in, do the necessary re-writing, revising, and editing—incidentally, “edit” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to eat”—and you turn out the kind of book that people will want to read, just as that lovely brown bread comes out of the oven, smelling heavenly, and looking delicious. 

1 comment:

  1. I can almost smell the freshly baked bread - wonderful. Unfortunately I've never made bread, and I'm not sure I ever will. But I like the analogies between baking bread and writing.