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Baking bread offers self-care and a sense of comfort 

Rise and shine

click to enlarge Beginning bakers can take joy in creating a simple peasant loaf, to start. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Beginning bakers can take joy in creating a simple peasant loaf, to start.

Quarantine has been hard on everyone — harder on lower-income Americans and those deemed essential workers — and while most Americans worry about ending the quarantine too soon, some have demanded states reopen sooner. And given that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN that he was “almost certain” COVID-19 will see a resurgence come fall, it’s easy to feel like any light at the end of the tunnel is more likely an oncoming train.

That said, people are finding ways to cope with the isolation and anxiety, with one of the more surprising tactics being bread-baking. Amateur bakers have been making their first loaves and posting pictures all over social media. As a result, yeast has been hard to come by. John Heil
man, vice president of yeast manufacturing at international baking ingredient company AB Mauri, called the demand unprecedented in USA Today, and the same article cites Nielsen market research data saying that, in the four weeks ending April 11, yeast sales jumped 410 percent.

Local therapist Paul Gross says he has noticed people who weren’t baking before starting to bake, and he says it makes sense.

“If I said to you, what does baking bread smell like, you could instantly smell it in your nose,” says Gross. “You could basically trigger memories because our sense of smell is the strongest sense we have associated with memories.”

Many people have positive associations with the smell of baking bread. It’s comforting and homey in a meaningful way, and not just because, for many, bread is a
comfort food. The fact that baking results in an immediate, tangible accomplishment only reinforces that association. Unlike, say, a well-ordered spreadsheet, it’s there to be seen, touched and, eventually, eaten.

There can also be benefit in the actual manipulation of the dough. For some, busy hands can make it easier to process or express difficult or complicated thoughts.

“I have folks who come in my office and I’ll hand them a fidget cube or a fidget spinner, just because they need to keep their hands busy,” says Gross. “It calms [them] down so they can talk, they can get their thoughts out, or they’re not concentrating too much.”

What Gross describes sounds like mindfulness or certain forms of meditation: Focus or distract the mind so it gets out of its own way. When people talk about mindfulness or living a day at a time, that’s along the lines of what they mean.

“Buddhist meditation is, you’re not trying to get anywhere, you’re just sitting with yourself. That’s it…” said Jason Loev, author and occultist, on an episode of podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. “You’re just sitting with the feeling, the feeling that you tried to get away from all damn day long, whether it’s through XBox or drugs… whatever you do to get away from The Feeling.”

Whatever the value of meditation, it’s important to note that baking should be another tool for coping with isolation, not the only tool. Gross says that, like anything, too much can become a problem, so it’s important to have multiple hobbies.

“If all that’s keeping [someone] holding on right now is just the act of making bread, I don’t want to tell them to stop,”
he says. “[But] there’s a whole bunch of places you can call to say, hey, what coping skills can I [try]? Every therapist that I know right now is doing telehealth and can get people in pretty quick.”

Further, Gross says it’s important to stay connected to others. For the would-be bread-bakers, maybe that looks like joining a social media group or raising up a sourdough starter from a friend’s starter. It could be a lot of things. But the details aren’t the point.

“Don’t be alone,” he says. “Talk to somebody online, on the phone, [through a] chat program, whatever. Before they were just there, but now they can be a lifeline, literally, to knowing you’re not alone. There’s someone else out there doing the same thing. Feeling the same thing. Share those feelings [you’re experiencing] with somebody.”

For those interested in trying their hand at bread-baking, author Joy Demorra shared a recipe for a peasant loaf that has gained notable popularity online. It requires no special equipment beyond a mug, an oven and a baking sheet — she uses a mixing bowl but says it’s optional for bakers who don’t mind more mess. Every measurement is based on the size of the mug. Check it out below.


If you are concerned about your own mental health, you can call the national suicide prevention talk line, 1-800-273-TALK.

Peasant loaf

Ingredients:

• 2.5 mugs all-purpose flour (or whole wheat, if desired)
• 1 packet (about 8.75 grams) dry yeast
• 1 mug warm water
• Salt, fine-ground (e.g., not big kosher flakes)

Process:

In a bowl, combine all-purpose flour with yeast. Put enough salt in the measuring mug to just coat the bottom, then add that to the dry ingredients and blend by hand. Add warm water and combine by hand until a sticky but firm dough forms. Add flour or water if necessary to achieve desired texture— it’s not uncommon for whole wheat dough to come out drier. Lift the dough, lightly flour the inside of the bowl, then set the dough down. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth or plastic wrap and set aside to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Lightly flour a clean work surface and dust hands with flour, then gently turn the dough out onto the surface. Smooth the dough into a circular shape. Gently stretch a corner of the dough, then fold it back in on itself. Rotate, stretch, fold and repeat until the dough resists stretching. Flip the dough over and smooth the dough into a round shape by lifting and tucking excess dough from the sides into the base of the loaf. Dust a baking sheet with flour, then set the dough on it. Cover and let rise for an hour.

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees. Set a second baking sheet or other oven-safe vessel on the bottom-most rack, and pour one mug of water into it — do not pour water into the base of an oven.

Immediately before putting the bread into the oven, use a sharp knife to score an “x” in the top of the loaf. Bake for 30 minutes, then check. If the top is burning, cover it with aluminum foil. Either way, continue to bake for an additional 15 minutes. To check doneness, tap the base of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, it’s done. If not, bake upside-down for an additional five minutes, then check again. Once done, cool on a wire rack for 20 to 30 minutes before slicing. (Not an experienced baker? You can see what it should look like from step to step at tinyurl.com/J-Demorra-loaf.)

Store in a cool, dry place — not a refrigerator — for up to two days, in an airtight container for three to four days, or freeze and store as long as necessary.

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