That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me."
- Emily Dickinson, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers"
Why does so much great poetry come from humble images? Bread is one of the earliest and simplest forms of nutrition, but it's the basis of many poems, including this one by Emily Dickinson ("asked a crumb of me"). Dickinson was actually an accomplished baker, and her loaves of bread once placed second in a local baking contest (although it must be noted that her sister was one of the judges). She took on the daily task of baking bread for the family when their housekeeper quit, and kept it up after they hired a new housekeeper because her father preferred her bread. And although she rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, she often sent baking to the homes of the bereaved and ill.
Upon further reflection, baking is a natural subject for literature. As a writer, I often find myself baking, whether it's bread or something sweet. There's something about the process of stirring, mixing and blending that sets my mind free and lets it wander around whatever manuscript I'm working on at the moment. (And how is my writing going right now? Pretty slowly, but "hope is the thing with feathers...")
Easy Oat Bread
(from Kneadlessly Simple, by Nancy Baggett)
5 1/2 cups unbleached white bread flour or all-purpose white flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking (not instant) oats, plus 4 Tbsp for garnish
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
Scant 2 3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp instant, fast-rising, or bread machine yeast
1/4 cup clover honey
1/4 cup corn oil or canola oil, plus extra for coating dough top and baking pans
2 1/4 cups plus 2 Tbsp ice water, plus more if needed
First rise: In a very large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, oats, sugar, salt and yeast. In a medium bowl or measuring cup, thoroughly whisk the honey and oil into the water. Stir the water mixture into the larger bowl, scraping down the sides until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Brush the top with oil and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise at cool room temperature for 12 to 18 hours; if convenient, vigorously stir once during the rise.
Second rise: Vigorously stir the dough. Generously oil two 9" x 5" loaf pans. Sprinkle a tablespoon of oats in each; tip the pans back and forth to spread the oats over the bottom and sides. Use well-oiled kitchen shears or a serrated knife to cut the dough into two equal portions. Put the portions in the pans and brush the tops with oil. Press and smooth the dough evenly into the pans. Spread a tablespoon of oats over each loaf and press down to embed. Make a 1/2 inch deep slash lengthwise down the centre of each loaf. Tightly cover the pans with plastic wrap.
Let rise: For a 2- to 3-hour regular rise, let stand at warm room temperature. (Alternatively, for a 45 minute to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water.) Continue the rise until the dough nears the plastic, then remove it and continue until the dough extends 1/2 inch above the pan rims.
Baking: 15 minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the tops are well-browned. Cover the tops with foil. Then bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few particles clinging to the bottom. Bake for 5 minutes longer to be sure the centres are done. Let cool in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out the loaves onto racks and cool thoroughly.