Monday, February 8, 2010

Baking Bread with Thoreau

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

During a recent reading of Thoreau’s Walden I couldn’t help but fantasize about living a more simplistic life. Waking up in the morning having nothing on my agenda but the daily necessities like eating and keeping warm seems like a very fulfilling lifestyle. While at Walden Pond Thoreau also spent a good deal of time reading, observing nature, and of course writing. His two-year experiment builds a case for a solitary, distraction-free happiness that in our present day of constant media-seeking seems unimaginable.

As romantic as it seems I won’t be moving myself to the mountains anytime soon. It’s way too cold for me and I can’t imagine giving up my addiction to the media and the constant drama-buzz it provides. Perhaps I’ll reconsider if and when Sarah Palin is elected President in 2012.

But I do think that Thoreau has some interesting daily rituals involving eating and cooking. Weather permitting, Thoreau baked bread daily over an outdoor fire. In his own words, “I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours that way.”

Though I opt to stay in the warm confines of my apartment in Brooklyn I wanted to incorporate this Zen-like practice of baking my own bread in the morning.

Never having baked bread before, I looked for a method that seemed simple and fool-proof. I first thumbed through Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found his recipe for what he calls the “fastest yeast bread.” The recipe seemed simple enough but didn’t have the Waldenesque vibe I was looking for. Browsing on-line I found a recipe that could have been handed down by Thoreau himself.

Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan St. Bakery in Manhattan, created a method of baking bread that requires very little skill but a whole lot of what Thoreau would call “pleasant hours”. First you mix some flour (3 cups), salt (1¼ tsp.), water (1½ cups), and just a bit of yeast (¼ tsp.) in a bowl. After mixing for a minute, transfer the dough into a medium-sized bowl greased with some olive oil and then cover. Leave the dough in room temperature for at least twelve hours or even longer if you wish. When you see little bubbles at the top you can then remove the dough, fold it once or twice, and let it rest for about fifteen minutes inside the bowl. Once the dough is well-rested shape it into a ball and place it on a flour-covered cotton towel. You’ll need plenty of flour on your hands and work surface to handle the stubbornly sticky dough. Cover the ball with another towel and let it rise for another one or two hours. After the dough has risen to twice its original size it is ready to bake.

I used a 7-quart, cast-iron Dutch oven to bake my bread but you can also use a Pyrex or ceramic pot. Set the oven to 450-500°F and let the pot heat up for about thirty minutes without the dough. Bake the dough covered, seam side up, for 30 minutes and then uncovered for 15-30 minutes more. Depending on your own preference, judge for yourself when you think the bread is done.

After my first time following this recipe I ended up with some of the best bread I have ever tasted. The outside of the bread was hard and crackly while the inside was soft and chewy. The only real work required was the initial mixing of the ingredients and the final baking of the dough. Time takes care of the rest.

With the aromas of fresh-baked bread floating through my apartment I was inclined to be a little more philosophical and introspective. Writing some thoughts in my journal, I realized how a big part of my life was spent thinking about superficial matters. I felt I had invited the spirit of Thoreau into my home. He stayed for a while, but then I drove him off as soon as I left the kitchen to catch up on my latest obsession – the newest season of HBO’s Big Love.


  1. that bread looks amazing!

  2. The bread does look wonderful. I hope to have occasion (or non-occasion) to make it soon myself. Ryan also has a fabulous no-knead recipe that I ought to look into for my sake and perhaps yours, should you be in the mood to test-drive another.

    Furthermore, I quite like the Thoreau quote you use to kick off the article. Do you suppose he could have meant affect in the archaic sense, as in "have affection for?" By that definition, your bread-making tribute to simple pleasure was indeed the highest art. Well done, friend.

  3. the bread looks so great! although i'm glad to know that you found your perfect waldenesque recipe, i'm happy to hear that we both own mark bittman's cookbook! it makes me feel so legitimate.