Poetry at Work: Baking Bread

It always begins with this: pulling the sleeve of my shirt (this time a faded yellow Oxford with a fine navy pinstripe) over my hand to leave only a thick, shiny silver curlicue sticking out from the cuff. I recite my perennial joke, though there is no one in the room to either snicker or sneer at it.

Arr, matey. It’s Cap’n Dough Hook.

I push the hooks into the mixer with a hard click and glance at the deep bowl beside it in time to see a dozen tiny explosions as yeast activates in a warm brown pool of watery milk, honey and molasses.

About every third time I bake bread the yeast balks at my sense of what is warm enough but not too warm and instead of taking breaststroke laps around the bowl before shooting triumphantly to the surface, the particles clump together in a huddled mass, refusing even to dunk their heads like a class of beginning swimmers.

The canister of whole wheat flour is empty, just short of the two-and-a-half cups I need so I open a new bag, the surface of my fingers drying as they touch the grainy powder. I set the bag back down too hard and a cloud puffs out through the small spout I’ve cut open, dusting the countertop I’d just cleaned off and sanitized. “Arr, matey,” I tell myself. “Thar’s no way to make bread tidy.”

I’ve added the dry ingredients to the bowl and I turn on the mixer. I watch the powder turn over into the dark milky liquid, forming creamy lumps that gently knock shoulders with one another before being dragged under by slow-turning corkscrews until they pull into themselves as one large mass, rough and smooth-skinned at the same time.

The recipe tells me the dough should “climb the hook and slap around the sides of the bowl without sticking,” and the process suddenly strikes me as more violent than bread-making ought to be. Soft, shapely dough ought not be bullied, slapped around in the bowl until its texture suits the baker, and I turn the mixer off. I know what this means, of course. I hold my hands out in front of me and quietly assure them it won’t last long. I nod toward the faucet and promise they’ll have all the soap and water they need when we’re done. “Could be worse,” I say. “I could make ye walk t’ plank.”

It’s still warm when I reach slender fingers around the dough to pull it from the bowl. It’s warm and it’s sticky. It refuses to come out in one lump. A third clings to the bottom of the bowl with outstretched arms, like a suckling babe being pulled from its mother. I set the dough on the counter, already well floured after my earlier mishap. I press gently into it, flatten it and begin to knead firmly, but softly, with the base of my hand. Fold in from the top, then press, then turn— we find a rhythm that seems to please us both.

I calculate. By machine, I was to knead six minutes. By hand, fifteen. If I let the machine work for three minutes that would leave seven minutes by hand, maybe eight. But I don’t know when I started, so the blinking digits on the clock mean nothing. I run my hands over the dough, let it find its own domed shape, and call it good.

I drizzle olive oil into the large silver bowl on the counter behind me, take a cloth and smear it all the way up the sides. The recipe doesn’t ask for this, but I do it anyway, wanting the dough to hold loosely to the bowl as it rises. Lifting the dough, I set it in the bowl, then take the oil again and pour it into my cupped hand. I study the golden pool, then tip my hand to let the oil run into the other. I rub them together, the back of my neck bristling slightly at the sensation of slippery oil against coarse, drying dough on my hands. I open my palms again to the dough and smooth them around the curves, coating its warm, taut skin.

As soon as I turn on the faucet, my hands dive under the water, not waiting for the soap, rub themselves together until they are smooth and clean. Then I return to the silver bowl, pull a white towel gently across the top, and leave the dough, its swelling roundness, to rest.

Photo by Claire Burge. Creative Commons license, sourced via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.

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  1. says

    Lyla, this is amazing! I love your swimming imagery.

    I just baked bread with yeast for the first time a week ago. It felt poetic, although I didn’t write a single word.

  2. says

    Of course you talk to the dough – it’s a living thing with yeast bubbling about inside it. Then, like any self-respecting baker, you’ll break it open and eat its warm guts out. Maybe with honey. Maybe with butter. But always with an eager tongue of anticipation.

  3. says

    This is so much fun and reminds me that baking bread is anything but tidy… and I think that’s why I like doing it (but I have to be in the right frame of mind, Matey).

    I loved how you said you wanted the dough to “hold loosely to the bowl” … mmmm I am craving freshly baked bread now. 😉

  4. says

    So here’s what gets me……..that you can write in such detail about this process. I just do not get how people do that. You wrote a post about baking bread and it was beautiful. How do you DOOOOOOO that?

    I’m just way too abstract/random. But I do enjoy you analytical/sequential thinkers and writers. Yum!

    • says

      I’ll admit, Jody, that sometimes I am very intentional about taking note of the details and recalling them because I mean to write about it. This was one such case.

      But there are also experiences that I don’t have thoughts of writing about, but the details remain vivid, and I get the inspiration to write it later.

      Those things that are more physical for me are those that have the best chance of making it into a piece of writing. Because I have some tactile issues with things that are sticky, slimy, rough, wet … oh, you name it … something like baking bread is highly physical beyond the obvious scent and taste. So I can have some fun with it. :)

      • says

        Lyla, your response makes so much sense….and brought a smile to my face. The other piece of this is just becoming more aware of even paying attention to the way things sound and feel and look. Ms. LL’s influence has increased my growth in all those areas, as I’m guessing from your evolution in this space, has been the case for you, too.
        Poetry is everywhere if we just pay attention.
        Thanks for all you do to share that.

  5. Sheila Dailie says

    This piece was such fun to read—I’ve kept it open on my computer for a couple days. It took me back to when you taught me that olive oil and honey make a difference in pizza crust.

    Poetry in motion! You turn a task into an event. And sometimes, it does feel good to knead the dough rather than let the machine make that transformation.

    Hmmm–living with mindfulness, eh Matey!

  6. Marcy says

    Your story about making bread was awesome, it was like standing there next to you watching the entire process. So many images, I could see the yeast bubbles and smell the dough. I’ve always made bread, sour dough, potato bread, pumpkin, etc. Hands down is a lemon blueberry that will knock your socks off. Here’s to friends and breaking of the bread.

    • says

      You’re right, of course. Writing can be about far more than meets the surface of the words. What that is, more often than not, is up to the reader. 😉

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tea. :)

      Stopped by your blog — made me really happy to see a Quote a Day widget in your sidebar. :)

  7. Marcy says

    Of course, cheaters do have the right to use their wonderful bread machines. Beer bread is the easy one and the best to eat. Add the stuff, hit the button and walk away. Now you can sip that tea and write without a worry or care. Life in the easy lane.

  8. says

    My goodness, this was fun to read. Loved all the details, the sensory overload. You do have a thing with touch, which surprises me as you’ve raised two sons. Something about the raising of boys seems to preclude squeamishness somehow. It would be grand fun to actually see you doing this, a la Maureen’s suggestion above. But then again, your words make that possible, don’t they? Thanks, friend. Great stuff.


  1. […] We all know the kitchen is not my best room. Even so, I find baking bread to be a contemplative time, even sacramental (with a small ‘s’). And yes, I find poetry in it. The poetry of images, of visual action–the poetry that happens before there are words. You might enjoy my Poetry at Work piece on Baking Bread. […]

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