Wittgenstein once wrote: "This is how philosophers should greet each other: 'Take your time!'" (Culture and Value). When working on a philosophical problem, a long slow fermentation period is optimal, if one wants to make a worthy contribution.
This also applies to bread making. Bread made quickly (like most commercial breads) has little taste, while a long cool fermentation gives the enzymes enough time to break down natural starches in the flour into sugars, producing a superior bread with complex flavors.
Academic philosophy and baking bread also have conveniently complementary schedules. Bread making involves short periods of work, interspersed by long periods of waiting. Work in philosophy involves long periods of concentration, with short breaks. So a day spent working on a problem, or grading papers, or planning classes, while intermittently turning ingredients into dough, into bread, fits my schedule very well.
These processes are complementary in other ways, too. Taking a break from my computer and the text I’m working on, to knead dough for 15-20 minutes can be a very philosophically productive time. Rhythmically working the flour into smooth dough, or shaping a batch of dough into loaves, or rolling out baguettes is relatively mindless activity, driven more by motor habits than careful deliberate concentration. So this is often a time when my thoughts are free to chew over what I have been writing about. While kneading, ideas solidify, connections (or contradictions!) are discovered, analogies are drawn. So when I return to my philosophical work after leaving the dough to rise, I often have made progress on both projects.
I worked in bakeries though high school and again during my undergraduate degree. So I learned to love bread, and learned some skills for handling dough, discerning when loaves are ready for baking, and so on. But the bread I made there was standardized, quickly-produced loaves made with pre-mixed ingredients (dough made by weighing out flour, yeast, water and a bag of pre-mixed “other stuff”).
It was when I tried making my own bread at home that I learned the most about how bread works. Developing the requisite mix of science and art, technical knowledge and embodied skill, has involved lot of practice (I make a batch of bread most weeks). And I have learned how to handle much wetter and stickier dough that I made in a commercial bakery (wetter dough makes superior bread). Of course, I learned a lot from bread that didn’t quite turn out as I hoped, and to learning from such almost-but-not-quite attempts. (This is also a useful skill for dealing with Reviewer #2’s comments on a philosophy paper submission.) It also involved many conversations and experiments, many bread books, and a lot of good advice and patient answers to questions from online baking communities like the generous folks at the Fresh Loaf (http://www.thefreshloaf.com); a site for amateur bakers to share recipes and results and to ask for advice and diagnoses.
My biggest challenge nowadays is trying to perfect a good sourdough baguette (my dough slashing technique still needs a lot of work). Early in graduate school I was gifted a piece of a sourdough starter (a symbiotic mix of wild yeast and sour-tasting bacteria that raise bread and give it a complex sour taste). I have kept this culture going for over 20 years, now. Sourdough baking increases the difficulty level (the dough is stickier and less predictable in its timing).
My go-to sourdough baguette method now involves taking a few minutes in the evening, when I’ll be working from home the next day, mixing ingredients together. I mix a small piece of sourdough with spring water and bread flour. Separately, I mix bread flour and a tiny amount of rye flour with iced spring water, and leave it overnight in the fridge (in this autolyse process, enzymes in the flour begin digesting starches into sugars, making a sweeter dough).
The next morning, I mix some of the now-active sourdough (the rest goes back to the fridge for next time), with the autolysed wet flour and a little more water (the amount increases if I’m feeling ambitious enough to make a wetter dough), and sea salt. I knead until it’s ready (20 minutes or so, depending). For very wet doughs, a no-knead “stretch and fold” technique achieves a similar result. Being able to “feel” when it’s ready is a skill that definitely takes practice. Then I cover it in a bowl and leave it to rise at cool room temperature.
How long this takes depends on how active my sourdough is. But it’s usually done its first rise and ready for shaping into loaves by late afternoon. I can be baking the bread early evening. So on a day when I’m home writing or grading papers at home, this fits my schedule very well.
Sometimes, though, on a day when I can’t be home (e.g. if I have to go into the university for a meeting), I can just put this kneaded dough in the fridge for up to a day. In the fridge, the sour bacteria have even more time to develop their complex sour flavors while the yeast grows and ferments the dough more slowly in the cold.
So when I next am home working for at least 4-5 hours I can take it out of the fridge and wait a couple of hours for it to warm to room temperature, then shape loaves, leave them to rise an hour or two, and eventually bake the bread.
This is often done in the evening. I often write or grade papers after my family has gone to bed, so this is often my default schedule for finishing bread, too. So it’s not unusual for my wife to be roused from sleep at 2:00 am because the house smells of fresh-baked bread.
Any bread, but especially sourdough, benefits from even more time. So sometimes I will return the shaped loaves to the fridge overnight, and then bake them first thing in the morning. This also makes the crust have tiny blisters and be very well caramelized in the hot oven. (Though too long runs the risk of their digesting and weakening the gluten structure I have developed.) And this means we can have fresh bread for breakfast!
The best part of baking bread, of course, is in the eating. And sharing. I have good evidence that my family and non-philosopher friends are much more interested in sharing the results of my bread baking, compared to sharing in the arcane details of an argument I’m making in my philosophical work.