Sunday, April 6, 2008

on kneading and needs

A while back, Steve suggested that I make Rosemary Focaccia out of that great bread book I checked out from the library, and boy, would I love to! The bread looks delicious, and so many people have reported catastrophes with it that I am helplessly tempted... I do love a good, dangerous challenge.

The problem? The problem is that the recipe requires a stand mixer. Requires -- not recommends, not suggests, not encourages, prefers or requests. I don't know squat about bread baking (yet), but even I can tell that something is strange with this one. 2 cups of water... 2 and 3/4 cups of flour. And that combines to make a dough??

Not by hand, it sure doesn't. That's a dough that you mix in a Kitchen-Aid and pour into the pan. That's a dough that I would love to mix in a Kitchen-Aid, if only I had one.

I once thought stand mixers were silly. I thought they were old, from when mixers were so heavy you couldn't hold them by hand, and now outdated. I wondered why anybody would want them, save the extremely lazy, because how hard is it to hold a mixer in place?

Now that I bake more than cookies, though, I want one so freaking badly. There is only so much my hands can do, only so much my hand-held can do... sometimes, you just need a machine.

Strange thing for me to confess! I also wondered, until maybe two or three weeks ago, why anybody would want to knead their bread in a machine. Breadmaker, stand mixer, knead-0-matic... by any name, it seemed to me like a way to take kneading away from me. I love kneading dough -- love it, love it, love it. I've never been able to meditate, take deep breaths and clear my mind, sit still and organize my thoughts... none of that. I get restless. I get bored.

When I'm kneading, though, I can totally immerse myself in the rhythm of my hands, and everything I've been thinking about is suddenly flowing through me, instead of getting backlogged in my brain. As I watch and feel the dough make an incredible transformation from a sticky, floury, shaggy mess to a smoothly elastic ball that feels downright alive, I feel myself making a similar transition -- from disorganized mess to a smoother, calmer, stronger self.

Why would I let a machine steal that away from me?

Lately, however, my mind has been changing. I've started thinking a little less about myself enjoying baking, and a little more about the bread itself, and how delicious it could be. A lot of the recipes I find most appealing -- artisan breads, slow rises -- have very sticky doughs. In fact, almost all of the recipes in Beranbaum's Bread Bible say, "knead the dough. The dough will be very sticky at this point." She could continue, "In fact, it will be so sticky you kind of want to kill yourself instead of kneading it, but please don't. Suffer through for five minutes, then let it rest for 15 minutes. I say that it will be easier to work with then, but that's really in the hopes that the placebo effect will make you feel better about it. Life will still suck. You should buy a stand mixer."

Kneading dough that sticky, especially without a proper kneading board and without a bench knife, isn't a calming, relaxing experience at all. It is just plain frustrating. I have to admit a certain amount of defeat, and accept that I will have to add a little bit too much flour -- there's no way around it. Even with that capitulation, it feels like I am battling the dough, not coaxing it to perfection.

Those doughs are the ones where I need a stand mixer most -- not to do the work for me, but to do the work far better than I can.

Last Monday, when I set out to bake some bread, I made a cake from The Bread Bible -- dunno why it was there, either, pretending to be a "quick bread" -- but when I went looking for a bread recipe, that "very sticky" line kept turning me away. I wanted to knead bread, damn it -- wanted to feel the tacky dough under my fingers, feel the dough changing under my hands. More importantly, I didn't want to wrestle with a gloopy mess. So I made a version of The Simple Dollar's bread recipe instead. Less delicious? Mm, probably. Maybe. But it satisfied my need to knead, and it turned out just fine.

Sometimes, I need a bread recipe that will give me a calming experience, a rewarding tactile sensation, a great knead.

The rest of the time, I need a stand mixer.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Hey Camila,

Keep your eyes open for a second hand mixer. My mom snagged a Kitchen Aid in good condition for me at a yard sale for $35! :)
Check out Craigslist too:

Here's one for $60 that someone is dumping just because it's the wrong color!

And here's another one for $50:

Now commencing a biga for ciabatta...
- Steve