Baking Bread: How a New Skill Has Made Me Feel Like Myself Again

woman holding freshly baked bread still in the loaf tin

On what felt like day 435 of social lockdown, a friend text me to say she’d heard there was bread flour in her local supermarket. In less than a minute I had my coat and shoes on, was shouting across the flat to my fiancé that I was taking my lunch break and started to run. It was just past 1pm when I arrived, cursing my wool coat in the sudden heat (I hadn’t been outside in three days, who knew it wasn’t winter anymore?), but I allowed straight into the store thanks to a quarantine queueing miracle. I knew before I even bent down to the familiar shelf that there was none left. I grabbed a bag of plain and some yeast so my trip didn’t feel entirely fruitless, and walked home.

I was pissed off. At the beginning of the year, like everyone, I thought about what I wanted 2020 to bring me. Beyond the big moments of finding a new job (achieved!) and getting married (who knows when that’ll happen now?!), I promised to take time for myself to learn something new. In the whirlwind of my 20s, I focused on my career and any hobby was served as something to monetise, but I wanted to focus inwards a little more in my 30s. I had a desire to learn; to stretch my brain and focus on things that were just for me. So I made two pledges, rather than resolutions:

  1. Learn how to grow my own food
  2. Learn how to bake bread

The latter was based on my lifetime love of baking but the awareness of a gaping space in my knowledge. My first loaf was a wholemeal cottage cob – it was wonky and looked like a pair of boobs, but it was delicious and I was hooked. Before lockdown happened I had baked a loaf of bread almost every week – I hadn’t shared all of them online because it was for me. It was self-indulgent and quickly became my go-to way of forgetting the stresses of the week and the only way I could truly switch off. 

woman looking excited at loaf of bread

You know what happened next. Panic buying meant suddenly bread flour was like gold dust; as the panic subsided others realised the same as me: the art of baking is good for the mind. Even when the odd legendary bag would wind up on a supermarket shelf, it would disappear before I could get to it. After the aforementioned sprint to the shops, followed by a cry, followed by a long talk with my mum, my stubborn nature came back with added strength. I could still bake, I just needed to be a little more inventive.

I made naans with maida flour I managed to order online, flatbreads with self-raising flour and Greek yoghurt, bao buns with plain flour. Previously intimidating bakes became a ‘sod it, I’ll give it a go’ challenge; as lockdown has persisted, I’ve spent full days in my kitchen, a podcast on in the background, my mind staying calm while my hands stay busy. As the world becomes slightly less mad, I’ve been able to get hold of a 16kg bag of regular bread flour, and being able to make whatever I want, whenever I want is a peculiar sort of freedom I’d never thought I’d feel so liberated by.

fresh homemade bagels with a bread knife

Previously, I just wanted to master a standard loaf – the romantic notion of having fresh bread every weekend was my driver. But now my goal has changed. I want to be a better baker. I’m experimenting and researching; I’m putting that stubbornness to good use and trying and re-trying. I can tell when a dough is finished kneading my touch alone, and for somebody who has no clear understanding of science, I somehow now understand how gluten is formed. My desire to learn is developing into a skill; it’s becoming a part of me that will evolve and grow because I completely love doing it.

The pride I feel is attached is nothing but myself and my determination. Baking bread has given me something of my own, and when lockdown is over, I can’t wait to share it on the plates of my loved ones.

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