How to Learn

by

I realized that I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks and that the last time I wrote was about a tragedy. The week after really wasn’t good. We stopped functioning. I was reading every article I saw, even though I knew I shouldn’t, and reading comments, even though I know better. I was able to finally articulate the mess of feelings, which helped, although I’m not sure I could repeat it in writing.

As part of my attempt to be healthy and get my head in a better place, I’ve been forcing myself offline. I’ve posted a few of my dough experiments, and two weeks ago, I really dove into them. The first experiment involved working with yeast for the first time in my life. I made naan. I didn’t like the first recipe I tried, so I found another, gave it a shot, and it turned out extremely well.

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The first naan recipe had been too plain, and I thought it’d make a decent basis for regular bread, which prompted me to find and try a very simple bread recipe to make my first ever free form boules. We had a bread machine back in the U.S. but I’d always been wary of it — I didn’t understand the bread process — so I was very excited when my first loaves actually worked.

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I posted this to Facebook, and a friend who’s a chef posted a few comments, which made me realize that just because I’d managed to make bread once didn’t mean I had any idea what I was doing. He had dropped a couple of terms I didn’t know, and I dove into research and started to read bread theory. I learned all about flour and yeast and started to grow my own yeast culture (which was super fun until I killed it — now I’m growing another!). I learned about different fermentation and rising processes, active vs. instant yeast, and types of flour, their respective gluten levels, and how that affects the process and the result.

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A week later, I decided to try making bread again, but a more complicated recipe, with raisins and almonds and sunflower seeds and a mix of flour types, and… I decided that even though this was only my second attempt ever at making bread, I was going to try a different kind of yeast and rise method than the recipe described. Yes, I was going to hack the bread recipe. And it worked.

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So now I was getting bold. I could change things, mix them up, and I was alternating between theory and practice. I tried roti, French-style Southern biscuits, and another boule. The roti dough ended up being too sticky, which made it hard to shape, so I’ll adjust next time (weird-looking but tasty!). The biscuits were perfect. The third boule recipe will also need to be adjusted the next time I try it out — I had used my own mix of flours, which worked well, but my oven is small and heats quickly, so I need to play with temperatures and bake times.

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Yesterday I made bagels for the first time in my life. They were tiny and kind of demented, like my roti.

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But they were the first fresh bagels we’ve had since we moved here, and that was super exciting. So I made them again today, and once more, hacked the recipe. The results were better, and I attempted a second flavor using a technique I’d read about in another recipe.

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I have a few ideas for additional adjustments, and, having posted these pics to Facebook, got a few tips from a bagel-making expert, which was even more exciting.

I’ve been experimenting with dough for about five weeks now, and it’s become my meditation, play, and release. I wake up early, mix up a batch of something, let it rise, do other chores like grocery shopping or laundry, and then shape and bake and make lunch with the latest creation. Then, in the afternoon and evening, I work.

As I’ve been experimenting, I’ve been thinking about learning, and how far I’ve been able to come in a few weeks. I started by working with an expert (strudel-making) and trying tortilla making with remote tips from another expert friend. I’ve shared results of my experiments, received feedback, done research, and then attempted new things, tracked results, and shared them. My network of experts has given me a few, concrete pointers and encouraged me to explore, experiment, and just play — and that’s why it’s been so fun and why I feel like I’m seeing progress between first and second attempts. There’s no pressure, and I can make things up without fearing failure. My identity isn’t wrapped up in bread making. There’s no performance anxiety. At worst, I’ll have wasted a couple of hours on a project that didn’t work and I don’t have to share.

The other lesson I’ve learned is one that my ballet teacher first taught me — even if you don’t know what you’re doing, act like you do. Fail with confidence. Some of the dough I’m working with is extremely wet and difficult to manage. The only way to work with it is by doing it — hesitation leads to failure. When performing, if you didn’t remember a step and did something else with confidence, no one would know the difference. And in practice, showing your mistakes meant someone could recognize and correct them before the final performance.

So I’ve been trying, and when I’m failing, I’m learning to adjust and fail better. And the best part about these baking experiments? (Well, besides the eating part.) I’ve been listening to audiobooks while I do it, so my brain turns completely off, and I can get lost in a story and mix and knead and shape and bake, and for a few hours of the day, nothing else matters.

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© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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