Lifting our minds in meditation and using our hands to create beauty: The art of baking bread

Imagination and Nature Lead to Creation

Flower Designs for artisan bread
The joy of creating something beautiful, inspired by meditation

Joy is Possible Everyday

We have a beautiful exercise of meditation which we sometimes practice together in small zoom groups.

It is a guided meditation, where one participant describes for all the meditators an imaginative picture. As we see it in our mind’s eye, we then focus on a feeling or a sensation.

For example, I listen to a meditator who says:  “I see a loaf of freshly baked bread.”

“I smell its wonderful aroma.”

“I hear how happy everyone in the household is as they arrive home. They know they will soon enjoy eating it, after a busy and hectic day.  And…..”

“I feel joy.”

To Glimpse Possibility

Such a guided meditation exercise teaches us, above all, how to deepen our appreciation of life experiences.

We learn to see them beforehand. We glimpse possibilities.

Thus, we discover how to feel a real and deep joy.

Life is, after all, full of moments of joy, and too often our busy, hectic lives impede our appreciation of life’s moments. Moreover, we forget to feel the joy. The joy that is there; ready to see and feel and appreciate.

Three Intentions

Some years ago, I started to rekindle an old feeling of joy when I once again began to bake bread. 

Good, delicious, real, homemade bread, like my great-grandmother would have made.  Artisan bread, using traditional ingredients: A sourdough leaven instead of commercial yeast, a long, slow rise, to release flavor and nutrients, and baking it in a hot oven in a covered pot.

Through practice, trial and error, and a host of cooking books and websites about baking artisan bread, I began to create delicious and nutritious loaves which were devoured by everyone in our household.

When I was learning to bake bread, moreover, I found I wanted to keep in mind three intentions.

Of Equal Value

And each of these three have, for me, equal value.

The bread needs to be:

Firstly,  Delicious. Check.  I can do that now.  Absolutely fragrant and delicious moist bread with a lovely crust.

Secondly, Nutritious.  Check.  Stoneground whole wheat flour as well as other grains and seeds such as rye, barley, flax, and chia, all which give a boost of fiber, protein and vitamins.

And thirdly, Beautiful.  Well, maybe not a complete check.

 

Freshly baked bread
Searching for the beautiful: meditation is my guide

For a long while, I baked nice enough loaves, but beautiful was not what I was quite able to do.  Granted, I had a high standard of beauty. Well, I mean, it was rather good, but not what I really yearned for, the standard of beauty I imagined being able to reach.

Delicious, nutritious, and beautiful.  That was what I yearned to do.

Could I ever make my bread look as beautiful and those incredible loaves in the window of the French bakery?  Those loves with a signature design, reminiscent of fired artisan pottery, where each loaf comes out unique and extraordinary?

Looking for Inspiration

I tried different methods, heat temperature, rising times. The loaves came out ok, but not yet quite “beautiful.”

Whole wheat bread
Aiming for a perfect loaf. Getting better but more practice needed!

And then, one morning, as I practiced meditation, the image of a beautiful tree that I had seen that morning came to mind. The tree brought a feeling of serenity, of peace, of the wisdom of nature and the intelligence of the universe.

Could I use an image from nature to decorate the tops of my loaves?

Would that help me get closer to the signature loaves I admired so much in the French bakeries?

I studied the shape of the trees. The pines of Florida:

Pine tree
The geometry of the pine, awakened in meditation

Now, I was Getting Somewhere

I became mesmerized by the beauty and shape of the pines of Florida. The geometry of the branches, the way they reached for the light, the stately presence. Could I possibly use a simple tree design for the signature mark I was looking for? Could I ever hope to reach some level of what I could dare to call “Beauty”?

I began with simple sketches on paper, and then moved on to dare to trace the stylized design on the unbaked, risen loaf:

Bread art
Pine design, first attempt

I don’t often draw, so this was a big step for me. The result? Well, it was getting better.

Artisan bread
Pine tree bread design

I found myself on a kind of quest that actually surprised me. I was looking for beauty. Everywhere I went, I looked at trees, sky, landscape, scenery. I felt the joy of beauty and that ancient yearning we have always had to create. To somehow replicate in a new way the beauty that we see in life.

On a Quest

Then I began to notice palm trees. Another exquisite shape. Could that become my signature design?

Palm tree and moon
A moonlit palm

Again, meditation opened up my imagination.

The view of a moonlit palm inspired my next creation. I tried various sketches on paper till I found a simple enough design that might survive the heat of a hot oven:

Palm tree bread design
Palm design on rising sourdough bread

Placing the bread in the hot oven, waiting for the final result, enjoying the moment, filling the house with delightful scent; all this became part of the happiness of baking bread.

There was also the element of the unknown: How would the design react to the heat of the oven? Would it open cracks in the surface in a determined way? Would the design that I had drawn even be recognizable after baking?

The waiting for the oven was like the waiting in life: we really never know what the future will bring, and it can surprise us in all sorts of ways.

The process of baking bread became a kind of hands-on meditation — about life, beauty, time, and change.

Artisan bread

Like any kind of journey, I felt I was getting somewhere. Some new place in the adventure of seeking to fulfill the three intentions I had set for myself: To bake bread that was delicious, nutritious, and beautiful. I was getting closer.

Flowers caught my eye

I then turned my attention to flowers. Florida, after all, has the root word “flor” or flower. Florida is a flowery place. A subtropical paradise, teeming with flowers.

Maybe that could become my signature design? My quest for beauty could be quenched in flowers.

One flower particularly caught my eye:

Florida flowers
Garden flower, Ocoee, Florida

Again, I put myself to sketching simple flower designs, that would be stylized enough to hold up to the heat of the oven. I thought of that ancient art of pottery. The potter never really knows how her creation will come out of the kiln. Fire does something. Fire transforms. Moreover, fire is a creative force.

Fire Transforms

With time and various trials, I settled on a simple design:

Flower bread design

I put the soft rising loaf in the hot oven, and waited.

Would it be something beautiful? Because beauty was something I was striving for.

How would the fire transform it?

Above all, was I able to do what I had hope to do?

Meditation on bread art

Delicious? Check

Nutritious? Check

Beautiful? Check

At long last, I was able to create what, for me, was a beautiful loaf. Inspired by nature. Nurtured in joy.

In conclusion, and perhaps best of all, I was able to do it again.

Artisan sourdough bread
Flor de Florida bread design

And again, and again. Beauty comes in all forms and designs, and is never the same each time:

Beautiful loaf of bread

Thus, meditation opens us to see the world in a new way, experience beauty and joy, and turn that joy into creative expressions of nourishment and love.

What better way to show love than to create something nourishing, delicious and beautiful?

What better way to participate with all of humanity, than to break bread together?  Bread, that essential food found in many forms in all cultures.

Even the Italians (who have pasta after all!) have a saying:

“Bread is all food.”

Bread of Life

And ancient prayers remind us (as, for example, “Give us this day our daily bread,”) how important to human survival bread has been over the millennia.

Think of all the forms of bread in cultures around the world and the different grains that are used:  corn, wheat, teff, barley, rye, oats, tapioca, just to name a few.

Some examples include the delicious tortillas of Mexico, the fragrant arepas of Colombia, the crisp and crusty baguettes of France, the soft and pliable ingera of Ethiopia, the versatile chapati of India, the dark rich rye bread of Eastern Europe, the oat cakes of Scotland the pão de queijo, or tapioca cheese bread, of Brazil.

Bread is truly the giver of life.  We could really say, like the Italians, that bread is all food.

Ancient origins

When baking my thoughts often go back to the origin of yeasted breads.  Historians point out that ancient pots in Egypt have been found to have remnants of yeasted bread and suggest that dough that rises may have been discovered accidently.

It is likely that human beings have been making some form of bread since at least 30,000 years ago, and that yeasted bread is more than 6,000 years old.  It all began back in ancient Egypt.

Long ago in Egypt

Picture an ancient Egyptian cook who leaves a pot of cooked porridge in the corner of the stone dwelling overnight. Airborne yeast, which are always around us, settle on the porridge, and in the desert night heat multiply rapidly.

Imagine the astonishment of this cook who finds that the food prepared the night before has actually doubled in size.

A remarkable discovery

What a gift from heaven!  What a divine gift!  Food, which has always been the primary struggle to find, grow, harvest, preserve and keep, suddenly and miraculously doubles in size!

Saving some of that magic dough, to use to make other porridge grow, was the beginning of sourdough.  Using yeast to make dough grow.  It must have been absolutely mind-blowing to ancient peoples.

Not only is yeasted dough, especially when given a long slow rise, the equivalent of multiplied food, it also releases many of the nutrients in grain, making the protein and minerals more available to be absorbed by the human body.

Bread is much more nutritious than the same grain prepared as a porridge.

People can live on porridge only so long.  But bread, when made with fermentation such as sourdough or yeast, provides enough nourishment to extend life for long periods of time.

The giver of life. Bread.

Another treasure from ancient Egypt

An ancient prayer, said to come down through the millennia from ancient Egypt to centers of knowledge in Europe, was shared by the great teacher Santiago Bovisio with his students in the first half of the 1900s.

Even as a modern person growing up in the United States, when I first heard this ancient prayer, it awakened in me a feeling of connection to peoples who lived thousands of years ago.

I’d like to share an English translation of it with you here.  It is to me a deep and profound meditation on the gift of life, the need for food, the beauty inherent in well-prepared nourishment, and the hope we carry that we can create a world where there is food for all.

So here it is, for you:  a translation of this ancient prayer, the Prayer of Blessing of Bread.

It is at once both a prayer of thanksgiving and a meditation on the mystery of life and mortality.

Winter tree Hudson Valley
Winter morning, Tiovli, New York
Prayer of Blessing of Bread

Divine origin

Gift from Eternity

Abundant bread
Power-giving bread
Bread of life
Bread worthy of the table

Oh, blessed bread.

Food for winter, life-giving

Warmth

Dawn nourishment

Rose-colored bread
Scarlet bread
True bread
Sacrifice is life
Eternity

Abundant bread
Power-giving bread
Bread worthy of the table

Oh, blessed bread.

Rose-colored bread
Scarlet bread
True bread
The incarnated human being
Is God made flesh
Is pain and sorrow sacrificed
God made flesh
Heavenly bread

Gift of wheat

Always bear
To God made flesh
Wheat is given to the cultivators                                                                   

And is their glory
Is true bread.

Life-giving bread
Abundant bread
Power-giving bread
Bread worthy of the table
Rose-colored bread
Scarlet bread
True bread
Bread of Life
                                                                      
Bread of pain and sorrow

It always, always is.

Abundant bread
Power-giving bread
Bread worthy of the table

Oh, blessed bread.