Bread and Fiction

I’ve always enjoyed baking. I’ve had some epic fails, the most notable being an inadvertent attempt at creating dwarf bread (nobody broke a tooth, thankfully) and my only try at croissants when I somehow misread “freezer” as “fridge”. The result was horrible to look at but quite tasty. Then last year I got determined to make rye bread. Danish rye bread. Rugbrød. The most delicious bread ever. As delicious as an 800-page insert-your-favourite-genre novel.

First, I had to find a recipe that suited me. Rugbrød is apparently something like the pies we bake here. Everyone has their own recipe and sticks to it, which is pretty normal for staple foods. I found not one but two recipes I liked a lot and decided to mix them. They both — like ALL other recipes — featured rye kernels as a must but I have the luck of living in a place where rye kernels are not very popular and yes, I looked in every online shop. But anyway, that’s what substitutes are for, so I substituted the kernels with rye flakes.

The main thing about rugbrød, however, is not the rye kernels as such but the sour dough starter. It’s the work of three or four days to get the starter, well, started, longer if it’s winter. Making it is as simple as jotting down a story idea. Then you just add a spoonful of flour with a bit of water every day the way you add more and more notes around that idea, and in three to seven days you have a sour-smelling substance (it’s actually a nice smell) that will make your bread rise. If you’ve been making story notes while waiting for the sour dough to start bubbling, you might also have a rough draft of a story by that time.

The bread itself takes two days to make. First, you mix the rye kernels — or flakes as it happens — with some of the sour dough and some more flour and water, and let them sit for a night. Then you add the star of the show, the rye flour, some more water and some salt and honey. And then you stir them all together. By hand. Sure, if you have a dough mixer you could use that but I don’t so I torture my hands every time I make this bread. The correct consistency for this dough is “thick mud” as one of the recipes I used says, so stirring it is probably exactly the same as stirring thick mud with bits of gravel in it. It’s painful. As painful as a writer’s block, I guess.

Then the dough needs to sit for several hours, just like the first draft of a novel needs to sit for a month or so until you start forgetting what you wrote in it. If the sour dough is right, it will even rise, but just a little, not two times or more like yeast bread does. Rugbrød is a modest bread. The final stage in this epic endeavour is heating up the oven to 160 C/320 F and baking the muddy thing for about two hours.

If you’ve done everything right you might get lucky and have a perfect bread at the end. Since I never do everything right (those kernels) my first try was quite pretty but also quite moist. Yet I kept on trying, the way you keep writing even if you get horrified by what you’ve written in that first draft, doubting it was even you who wrote it.

Bread recipes are so much like writing rules it’s a bit shocking when you realise it. You’d better stick to all you can stick to if you want the bread or the story to end up being any good. But there is space for improvisation, too. My third rye flakes bread came out pretty close to the original.

Then I had an epiphany: I could use wheat kernels instead of rye kernels. Those we have. So I did. And the result was better. I even cheated on the leavening because it seemed like it’s standard procedure nowadays. I started adding a teaspoon of dry yeast in the dough. This sure makes the dough rise. It then flops during baking so I might need to reduce the amount of yeast but if a Danish baker uses yeast why shouldn’t I? I saw this as a classic case of learn the rules and then break them for better results and my conscience accepted it.

Baking is like writing and writing is like baking. I wouldn’t compare it to other types of cooking, though, because the only recipes I can actually stick to are bakery recipes. Muffins and breads. Cakes and pies. Any other recipe I will interpret the way I like and the end result will likely only bear a distant resemblance to the original dish. But with bread and fiction I stick to the rules.

I’ve eaten enough of my failed experiments and I’ve read enough bad fiction (including my own) to know why the rules are important. So, make sure you have all (okay, most of) the ingredients, mix them properly, and bake at the correct temperature. Avoid oversalting and over-adverbialising. Don’t substitute sour cream for milk and don’t substitute eccentric word use for comprehensibility. The rules are actually quite simple. Anyone can follow them. And then break them when you see fit to create something truly unique.

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