bliss and transfiguration!
“Sometimes I take a book of poetry because walking suits poetry.”
—Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
I had lunch with my college roommate, Alissa, this week. She confessed that she had a hard time being still. She dances with a company in Chicago and between rehearsals and performances and teaching, she’s always on the move. How do you manage to be content with just reading or praying or sitting, Grace?
I laughed. I’m just as much a busybody as she is. For exercise, I’ve preferred running to walking because it burns the calories more quickly and I can be on to the next thing. At work, I’m always sprinting from one meeting to the next. At home, dusting and tidying always prevail over reading. A free night? I’d rather call up a friend and fill the evening than stay home and be still.
But I did tell her that I’ve been trying to keep wide margins in my life, to preserve open spaces. I’ve been walking more lately. Every book I’ve read in the last year on creativity or writing recommends daily walks: everyone from the choreographer Twyla Tharp to Steven King, who was out walking when he got hit by a van (I’ll stick to sidewalks, thank you). Madeleine L’Engle always seemed to be walking.
My friend Josh once told me that he thinks even walking moves us too fast. Stillness, or at least leisurely ambling, is better. It allows us to take in more of the world. How will we notice the chives that are finally stretching through if we’re always dashing in and out of the house?
Walking and sitting are useful habits for writers. In her book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland actually commends idleness—”long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering”—as a practice for writers and other creatives. She suggests simply sitting at least half an hour, although, she says, “two hours is better and five is remarkable and eight is bliss and transfiguration!” In that space, ideas are conceived, nurtured, birthed.
And walking: it’s hard to do much else when you’re walking, except perhaps learn a poem or talk with a friend. Notice the trees, the air, the cracks in the sidewalk. Slowness encourages attentiveness, and attentiveness begets creativity.
After breakfast yesterday, I got a text from Alissa: “Today’s rainy, rainy day is good practice for me to be content with ‘being’ and not going anywhere…!”
So, in the spirit of rainy days and just being, here’s a loaf of bread. Slow mixing, slow kneading, slow rising. Slowness for attentiveness. Slowness for creativity.
Take a nap while the sponge is developing. Take a walk during the first rise. Write during the second. Be idle. Be creative.
Corn Millet Bread
inspired by Edward Espe Brown’s The Tassajara Bread Book
Here’s a sunny, light loaf for a rainy, dreary day. We were making chili, so I wanted something reminiscent of cornbread; after fiddling around with two recipes from The Tassajara Bread Book, I landed on this butter-colored, millet-freckled bread. The millet is pretty crunchy, so if you want yours softer, consider cooking it completely beforehand or soaking it overnight. Otherwise, soaking it just before you bloom the yeast will do just fine.
A word about scalding milk: the original recipe calls for dry milk, but I wanted to use up the milk in our refrigerator. I did a little research because I’ve had trouble in the past getting milk-heavy breads to rise well. I discovered that scalding milk (heating it to 180°F) apparently denatures proteins that prevent gluten from forming. There’s no consensus on whether it’s necessary to scald milk these days because it’s already pasteurized, but I didn’t want a stumpy loaf, so I went ahead and scalded the milk. My loaves rose—hooray!
1 cup whole millet
1/2 cup very hot water
2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to just-warm
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 Tbsp. dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 g) honey
2 cups (250 g) whole wheat flour
2 cups (250 g) all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. table salt
1/4 olive oil
2 cups (240 g) corn flour (I used masa harina, but you might try finely ground cornmeal)
1/2 – 1 cup (125-250 g) all-purpose flour for kneading
In a small bowl, pour 1/2 cup very hot water over the millet. Set aside. In a medium pot on the stove, heat the milk over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. When the milk has been boiling wildly for a few minutes—don’t let it boil over!—remove it from the heat and let it cool.
In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Let it sit for 5 minutes.
When the milk is no hotter than 110°F, or warm but not hot, pour it into the bowl with the yeast and stir in the honey. Then stir in the 2 cups of whole wheat and 2 cups of all-purpose flour. With a wooden spoon, beat it about 100 strokes. Let the strokes dig deeply into the bowl and lift out of the dough to aerate it. Cover the bowl and let the sponge rise in a warm place (the top of your refrigerator, near a pot on the stove) for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes, fold in the salt, the oil, and the soaked millet. Then add the corn flour and stir until combined. At this point, you can begin kneading with the stand mixer or by hand. With the mixer, knead for about 5 minutes. By hand, about 10. The will have a consistency somewhere between bread and corn tortilla dough. If it’s especially sticky, add up to a cup of all-purpose flour until it holds together. Leave the dough in the bowl and cover for 50 to 60 minutes until it has doubled in size.
After that rise, punch it down by pressing your fist into the dough about 15 times all over the surface of the dough. Cover the bowl again and let it rise another 50 to 60 minutes. If you’re pressed for time, you can omit this second rising, but you can expect a denser loaf.
Divide the dough in half, shape into loaves, and place in two greased and floured loaf pans. Cover and let rise 20 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Bake the loaves for about an hour. When they are golden, remove them from the oven. Let them cool for about half an hour, then remove from their pans and cool completely. Serve with butter and honey alongside soup.