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home : columns : columns January 17, 2018

1/9/2018 1:08:00 PM
Baking bread and other life lessons
By Katy Yoder

There's something growing in my refrigerator. I see it when I open the door...rising, bubbling and needing my attention. All kinds of things are changing right now. It's a new year, full of possibilities and transformation. But nothing will happen if I don't take a few risks.

Once I made the decision to leave my long-time and rewarding job, I began trying new things. Even though I was leaving on the best of terms I still felt a sense of freedom and relief. A big door was closing, giving me a gentle nudge to keep moving away from familiar routines and surroundings. It felt OK to stretch and take a leap into the unknown. Some of the things I'm doing now, I never could have imagined. And it all came down to not worrying about what others think, and just saying "Yes!"

My sister and I are doing low-key and super-fun back-up singing with a band. Even though I sang for years a long time ago, I never thought singing would be a part of my life again. I rarely even sang in the car or the shower. I just accepted that I'd lost my voice. Now we show up at farmer's markets and coffee houses, get on stage and do a few numbers with dear, encouraging friends.

Another new endeavor is bread-making. That's when the yeasty little bubbles took up residence in our kitchen. I'd watched "real cooks" make sourdough bread and thought it was too much for me to try. There seemed to be so many mysterious tricks required to produce a delicious round of homemade bread. Then I was offered some sourdough starter. I didn't want to refuse just because I was afraid I wouldn't follow through and actually use it. (Something I did the first time I was given some of the creamy-colored liquid.)

Toby, my daughter's boyfriend is a seasoned bread-maker, and after tasting some of his caraway seed bread, I had to give it a try. For some reason, cutting ties with my past seemed to give me new-found courage to go for it. Being such a one-trick-pony, I always found an excuse to stay in my lane and focus on my job. I rarely ventured out or tried anything new.

Now the starter is growing and I'm learning how to take good care of it. I feed it about once a week, and bought a large glass jar for it to live in (the first jar was too small and when I added flour and water, I came home to a growing blob of creeping, gooey starter oozing across my counter).

Before the holidays, I began baking sourdough/whole-wheat bread for gifts and holiday meals. I had some quickly written-down instructions from Toby that I tried to follow. When he came for Christmas, I was excited to have him taste bread from his starter. When I asked for feedback, he mentioned that I should be keeping the lids on the dutch ovens, then taking them off for the last 5 or so minutes. I'd been doing it backwards. That explained why the bread wasn't getting that golden-brown color.

Several loaves later, the color, texture and flavor began to improve. I realize now that I'm dealing with a living thing that reacts to temperature and other changing variables. No two loaves are the same. Another improvement came when I realized I wasn't slicing into the unbaked bread properly. That caused a weird dome to form on the top of each loaf. Once Toby showed me how to slice the top and let air escape during cooking, my loaves stopped looking like the top of a big crimini mushroom.

All this unleashed creativity has motived me to try something new and then show it to the world. I think my writing has helped me get over a fear of judgement, ridicule or just plain embarrassment about what I produce. I'm still surprised when someone likes what I write or cook. It's funny, I needed to stop caring about what people think before I experienced more positive responses to my work.

I see baking bread like a parable for my new career as a full-time writer. I'm learning how to take care of my ideas (starter) by first not ignoring them. When I pay attention and follow through, the results keep getting better. My focus has shifted, my inner conversations are less adversarial and more supportive. The words I speak in my mind are alive and will produce offspring. When I "feed" my imagination with healthy, measured doses of well-seasoned ideas the result can be downright tasty.

Then there's the crust. Its smell and texture can reveal the essence of what lies within. With each loaf, it's been too hard or too soft and sometimes burned if I don't pay attention. This process has me asking what kind of outside am I revealing to the world. Who I am and how I'm perceived by others is partly of my own making. Am I paying attention to what I need? Do I plan ahead and take the steps necessary for a positive outcome?

When I've tried to protect myself with a hard shell, all I accomplish is keeping others out and making it difficult for anyone to know the real me. Some people can't be bothered with having to really chew through a hard crust to get inside. I wonder who I've missed because I made it difficult for them to get in?

Once again, a wise woman's words speak to me. "Take your time. It's a process." So I'll keep baking, learning and sharing what I create. It's time to be bold, take risks and burn a few loaves along the way. It's all worth it in the end.

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