“Call me when you need an oven,” my friend Melissa said to me when I announced we had begun gutting our kitchen. She knew me too well. When I am bored I cook. When I am feeling creative I cook. When I am hungry I cook. When I want to do something for someone else, I cook.
Often times this means baking. I like the ritual of baking bread as much as I like eating it. Recipes and techniques are as familiar to me as friends. I keep in close contact and bake often. As much as I hated this shoddy broken-broiler beastly oven, I liked baking in it. I had a hard time letting go of it. Even after we had sawed and hauled away the cabinets that housed it, and left it sitting on a pair of tiles on the concrete slab, (yes, just like the picture) I was still getting my baking fix. I carefully draped that wonderful, terrible oven in plastic sheeting to protect it from the dust storm when my husband created 40 pounds of powder while grinding down the quickset from the old tile; I couldn’t give up on the oven too early. We swept and suctioned up the mess, and the oven was still good for a few more days until the electrician pulled the plug and said it was time to let it go.
But still, I wanted to bake. In the midst of the chaos my house has become, I needed to bake more than ever, but my oven was gone.
In her essay “How to Rise Up Like New Bread” (whose title I have blatantly stolen for my own post today) the late and great food writer MFK Fisher wrote this of of bread baking:
It doesn’t cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you willed with peace, and the house filled with ones of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.
I nodded my head in solemn agreement as I read. Not only do I get that soul-satisfaction known to habitual bread bakers, I crave it. So in the weeks since I finally let the oven go, I have been devising other ways to bake. Here’s the rundown: the microwave is bad, the electric skillet was no good, the toaster oven is tricky, the grill works, but the crock pot is a winner. I grin with childlike delight at each slow cooked baking success. The wafting fragrance of baking bread opens a little corner of peace for me in the midst of the bombed out building my kitchen could pass for. I might just make it through, and rise up like new bread.
* * *
”Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy and save me: Let me lie down like a stone, O God, and rise up like new bread,” Platon prayed, and turning over, he fell asleep at once.”
War and Peace, Tolstoy
I couldn’t wrap my head around Easter this year without baking, plus I had sour milk in the fridge, begging to be reincarnated into something better before Justin made good on his threat to throw the tangy stuff out. Since I firmly believe in not wasting still-useful milk, I commenced dough making. Sour milk, yeast, flour, salt, a kiss of sugar and a heavy- handed addition of spices went into the bowl: I was making hot cross buns. Ancient and ritualistic food is laden with meaning, hot cross buns are no exception. I scooped in cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and nutmeg (with occasional ingredients being currants, raisins, allspice and orange zest) and told my children the story of Jesus’s friends and disciples, the women who prepared his body while it lay in the tomb. The warm fragrance of the cinnamon and spices sweetened the air and the idle flesh of God’s own son. That same perfume scents the dough of hot cross buns. Although the dough seems dead, it is not, but merely sleeps. I tuck in into the refrigerator overnight; and wait for it to rise, sure as Christ our Lord. It does. I show it to my children. They are accustomed to the bread-making ritual, but see it now with fresh eyes as they watch the bread stand in for the body of Christ as our Easter object lesson.
I have no oven to bake the dough in. A parchment paper-lined slow cooker stands in for the occasion. I bake and the spiced heavenly aroma fills the house for even longer than usual due to the gentle, tedious cooking of the crock pot. I love few things more than the smell of good food cooking at my house. This scent qualifies. And when I start to smell the Maillard Reaction of the crust browning, I swoop in to check the rolls. It is a sweet success. The eight little rounds of dough I had placed in there an hour ago have risen again. I pop them in the toaster oven for a quick toasting of the tops of the bread (because they are only toasty on the undersides). Then I ice crosses on the top of each bun- the classic sign of Christ and Christian symbol of Easter- but feel like the whole action is purely extraneous. Doesn’t Easter have enough treats already–did I really need to ice the cake? And still, did I really need the traditional cross on top to signify Christ, Easter? The answer was no on both accounts.
No, I didn’t need either one. The bread itself was enough. The making process and the sweet satisfying taste was exactly what I had craved. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably confess it again and again, that bread making is a sacred ritual to me. It is pleasurable, productive and profound. The process grounds me; in those moments my tasks are simple and centered on very basic things. Kneading and shaping the ingredients into a whole; a new thing that does not lie still, but springs up triumphant.
I nestle the rolls into a napkin (all baskets are long since packed away) and set them on the table of our simplest Easter meal to date. As a family we pray over our simple food served on cheap paper plates. I laugh at the irony of our Easter feast. The kids don’t mind, there are hot cross buns to be eaten. Making them this year was more tricky that it has been in the past, yet I was glad I made the effort. I appreciate the reminder; the reason that hot cross buns are the only tradition that adorned our Easter meal this year, they are the thing that means the most to me. The process of baking them satisfied the hunger I have felt in amid the chaos at home right now. I am aching to get everything into its proper place. In the kitchen and in my head, I am craving a good lift to get back in order and pull myself out of the fog I’ve felt lately. This was a good start, a reminder, and a sweet taste of Easter’s greatest gift. It is Christ, the new bread, who rose up, and allows us to rise too.