Some things you can’t learn by following a recipe

One of the fun things about living away from family (OK, don’t take that the wrong way!) is the chance to experiment a little with our holiday traditions. This year for Easter, my husband didn’t have to work for the first time since we’ve lived here, so we planned a Bartelt feast for the ages. (We like food. Planning for it. Cooking it. Eating it.)

For over a year, I’ve been wanting to try this homemade rye bread recipe I requested from a woman at church who made some for us after our son was born. (He’s 17 months now. Yes, I’m a procrastinator.) Easter seemed the perfect time to try.

Fact: I have never made homemade yeast bread before.

Fact: I try to follow recipes to a “T.” I am not a great kitchen improviser.

Fact: I get frustrated if I don’t succeed the first time at trying something. (Perfectionism, you are a vice.)

Fact: My husband is a better cook than I am, despite the cinnamon chili story he told in church a few weeks ago.

So, the Saturday before Easter, I gathered up the ingredients, and my nerve, and dove headfirst into homemade bread.

Step 1: Dissolve yeast. Whisk in flour. Cover, let stand for 4 hours.

No problem, although I’m slightly insecure about my kitchen’s ability to foster risen bread. My pizza dough never quite does what I want it to do.

Fact: While making the rye bread, I discovered that I’d been using the wrong amount of yeast when making pizza dough. 1 Tb. of yeast=1 packet, not 2 Tb.

Step 2: Stir in sugar, caraway seeds, salt, AP flour and water. Mix well.

Here’s where it started to get a bit tricky. And intuitive.

Step 3: Add enough flour to form a firm dough.

Huh? I mean, I know what dough is supposed to look like, but as I added more flour, I grew less confident in this endeavor. I kept asking my husband’s opinion.

Step 4: Floured surface; knead till smooth and elastic.

This is what kneading looked like. The dough was sticking to my hands, the wax paper (note to self: don’t knead on wax paper) and I kept adding more flour to try to get the dough to a kneadable state.

Crisis point: I was ready to give up, and things were getting tense in the kitchen. Phil kept telling me what I should be doing and I was ready to punch him. Or cry. Or tell myself I’m a big fat failure at bread making. (Note to self: This was your FIRST TIME making bread.)

Somewhere in the midst of the crisis, he suggested that I flour my hands. Genius. That made a huge difference. Why wasn’t that instruction in the recipe?

My conclusion: Some things are better learned by watching and doing alongside a more experienced person.

We live in Amish country. I have no doubt that a 30-something Amish woman could make bread with her eyes closed and one hand tied behind her back. She’s seen it done. She’s participated in its creation. And the first time she made it on her own, she’d have had someone watching her.

Even among the non-Amish are women (and some men, like my husband) who grew up watching their mothers and grandmothers make bread from scratch. I was not one of those.

A recipe can’t tell me when the dough is firm or that I should flour my hands or how long I have to knead before the dough becomes “elastic.” It also can’t tell me how to fix my mistakes or encourage me to keep going when I think I’ve screwed up.

In the midst of kneading and trying to salvage the bread, I thought about Christian discipleship and how sometimes we give each other a “recipe” of sorts for how we’re supposed to grow and develop as Christians. Read your Bible, pray, don’t do this, love your neighbor, tell people about Jesus … I’m sure you could add your own. And sometimes we don’t know how to do those things or we fail at some part of the Christian life and want to give up. What we need more than a recipe for Christian growth is a relationship — someone to show us how it’s done, who is more experienced than us, who can give us tips learned from those experiences, and who can encourage us to keep going and assure us that failure is an option but isn’t the end.

I pressed on with the bread, though I’m sure I kneaded it too long.

Step 5: After it (and I) rested for a few minutes, I divided the dough into four loaves, prepared the baking sheets and let the dough rise again. They definitely grew but didn’t really rise like I had hoped.

Step 6: Bake.

Here’s the finished result:

They look like bread and they taste pretty good, but I know I made some mistakes along the way. Baking homemade bread took most of the day, and while I’m not ecstatic about the result, I do feel good about trying. And I intend to try again, just not too soon.

I am grateful, though, for the reminder that it’s OK to fail at something, especially if it’s your first time and you have no one to guide you through. And for the encouragement to not give other Christians a list of “musts” or “shoulds” without committing to walk through life with them.

And I welcome any bread-baking tips you have!

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