The Nature Of Dough April 01, 2014 08:00
Helen: What inspired you to start making bread?
Mathias: In August 2012, my wife and I were on vacation in Denmark to visit our friends and family. One night at dinner, my step-father-in-law had baked two loaves of incredible bread. At first I simply refused to believe that he had made them. They were so beautiful and tasted amazing. But he insisted that they were his creations and he showed me the book that he had learned it from. I was completely hooked. I think I knew already back then that this was the bread I wanted to eat. Every day. This was not just food for my stomach. It was food for my soul. I decided then and there that upon my return to NYC I would buy the book (even though I managed to read most of it while we were still in Denmark) and that I would begin practicing for myself.
H: And how did the process begin?
M: First I had to buy a few pieces of new equipment, but nothing too crazy. The dough is mixed and kneaded entirely by hand. With the book and equipment in place I began the journey. The first step was to make a sourdough starter, and to train it to be in a certain way. A sourdough starter is a living organism — a little piece of nature if you will. I knew this intellectually, but it was only through the process of learning to bake really well, that I have begun to understand what this really means. Initially I just followed the directions set forth in the book, and looked for the signs the book said I should look for. Little bubbles and light acidic smell. Sometimes almost like vinegar. I took a leap of faith and with my newly trained starter I had my first attempt at making a good loaf of bread. Looking back now, I was probably a bit lucky that it turned out so well the first time. I didn't really know what I was doing exactly, but this early success gave me confidence to continue. I had seen with my own eyes that it was possible, not only for my step-father-in-law and some people in that were featured as test-bakers in the book, but also for me and my hands, to make really awesome bread.
H: So you just nailed it in the first try?
M: Not really. After a few lucky ones came the downs. Later batches were suddenly not as good. The dough was much stickier. Or it didn't gain as much volume. Or the crust didn't get the same deep amber color. And I didn't understand why things went wrong. I followed the same steps. I took notes of temperatures and rising times, measured flour and water precisely, and wrote it all down in a little notebook. Like a scientist I was exploring the experiment. Testing hypotheses. Was it too cold? Or too warm? Should it sit longer? Or shorter? I would sometimes get nervous and fearful of result. Afraid that I would once again disappoint myself. Eventually I found a way to give myself permission to simply try and learn: I decided that for the first 100 loaves I would make, I would not worry about their quality. They were just practice. This gave me mental space to focus on just making them and accept them when they were less than great. I just kept on baking to get to 100.
H: When you allowed yourself to be imperfect and embrace the learning process, how did that change your approach?
M: The biggest change I experienced was that I was less anxious about the results. I still felt it a little bit (after all, it would still be 4 pounds of good flour that would go to waste if it was really bad) but I kept trying to just focus on the long game. To keep making and experimenting and taking lots of notes. I began to eventually understand. Or at least I felt like I could understand. But it still threw me off again and again. I think the most important thing was that I didn't just give up or start some other bread instead. I stuck with the same basic recipe and concept and just tweaked it in minor ways. That was what allowed me to really learn from the many times it didn't come out the way I wanted.
H: And what happened after you reached 100?
M: Not much actually, I just kept on baking. Yesterday I baked loaf number 237. And I'm not done yet. I still love the bread I make more than any other bread I have ever eaten. I still enjoy making it and giving it to friends. And I finally feel that I am beginning to really understand what is going on. I can feel the dough with my hands and I know how it is developing. I can smell the starter and I know how it's feeling. I can't really describe it in words. It's soft and elastic in a certain way. Full of bubbles. But that's how any dough is. The difference is subtle, but I know my dough. And more than that, I care about it. I find myself worrying about how it is feeling. If I forget to feed it with new flour. I've almost killed my starter a few times and I felt really awful. Luckily, they are quite resilient and with some intensive baker CPR I managed to get it back to life. And what a relief I felt.
H: It seems you have really learned a lot through this process. Why do you keep baking? Is there more to learn?
M: Now, the truth is that I don't really know exactly why I bake bread. This has been one way for me to explore in myself what is really going on. But I can also feel that I struggle to put my practice into words. I can describe the steps and what I do. But it seems so crude in comparison to how I feel. I feel the dough with my hands, but I also feel it inside. The caring for something that is alive. I never had a pet and I so far I have not found much meaning in caring for plants in our home. But a living starter. A little piece of nature that I can't fully control, but that I can cooperate with to produce delicious bread. Perhaps it helps me cope with the stress of an urban environment like New York. Maybe it has nothing to do with that. All I can do is to keep baking, writing and eating and perhaps one day I will figure it out.
H: How has caring for the dough taught you to care for other parts of life, living and non-living?
M: This is a fun question. I never thought about it that way. But I guess what I have learned is that I really need to pay attention to the smallest signs and see the patterns, and learn how to interpret them. Both the visual signs and the more subtle signs in touch. This is really challenging with our son because he keeps changing so fast so whenever I begin to feel that I can read his signs, he changes. Suddenly he has a new sound. My wife is much better in this than I am. Luckily, the dough doesn't evolve so much.
H: What has this process taught you about simplicity in the center of the city?
M: Some people may say that New York is so fast and nobody has time for anything. They say it again and again to others and to themselves, and it is creating all this hysteria. But you don't have to buy into the reality that most people seem to live in. Carving out the time to build my own bread making practice has really reaffirmed for me that you can dramatically affect your own reality. Not just by thinking or talking in a different way, but also by putting action behind your words. It's not just positive psychology, it's creating evidence for myself that I do have time for things like bread. It doesn't have to be so complicated.
Mathias Vestergaard helps leaders, creatives and entrepreneurs think clearly and tackle tough challenges. He loves bread and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and baby son.