Cover Photo: photo by Karen Sabin/flickr
photo by Karen Sabin/flickr

Flour, Yeast, Water, and Salt: How Breadmaking Helped Me Get Through My Divorce

Breadmaking made me feel purposeful, instead of feeling as if I scarcely had control over anything.

I baked my first loaf of yeasted bread on December 9, 2016, the day that I retained a lawyer to represent me in settlement negotiations with my soon-to-be-ex-husband. Until then, my baking capabilities had only extended to brownies and banana bread; I thought of yeasted bread as fickle and temperamental. My mother, my first teacher in the kitchen, did not bake yeasted breads because they were not a part of her repertoire of South Asian dishes. I learned to make flatbreads from her instead—puff pastry-like paratha, crispy puri, soft and pliable roti.

As it turned out, I didn’t need many words. When I let our suitcases fall to the kitchen floor after an interminably long around-the-world flight, my father said, “You’re home; we’ve got this.” Within days, my parents had refashioned the guest bedrooms into our bedrooms and made space in the basement for all my daughter’s toys and my books. One night, my mother sat on the edge of my bed and wished for me a new and vigorous rebirth. By December, we had settled into a sometimes sublime, sometimes awkward multi-generational living arrangement. My daughter and I immediately benefited from my parents’ emotional and financial support, and they drew joy from her exuberant presence.

Whole grains can make for dry, crumbly, dense bread when improperly handled, and perhaps aren’t the easiest for a novice to use, but I didn’t know any better. To make the whole-grain cinnamon swirl bread, I used whatever flours and grains my mother had in her pantry: rye flour, rolled oats, quinoa. I followed the recipe exactly—I weighed ingredients twice and thrice, and set multiple timers to leave little room for error.

I had beginner’s luck. The bread was airy and moist and sweet and beautiful. We slathered slices with sweet cream butter, and enjoyed it for breakfast the rest of the week.

When sleep was elusive, I read cookbooks at two and three o’clock in the morning or trawled baking message boards and Facebook groups. I made mental notes on gluten, autolyse, preferment, crumb, hydration, proof, fermentation. While reading books and scrolling through social media was a welcome respite from the maddening anxiety that threatened my health, it soon created another—and perhaps equally unhealthy—preoccupation: a desire for mastery in the midst of chaos, a sublimation of my grief into bread.

Lamination? What is that?Baking croissants for the first time was an unmitigated disaster. The butter was too warm, and the laminated dough was oddly shaped and uneven. Once the croissants were in the oven, they oozed butter all over; after baking, they were gummy inside. I saved one halfway decent sample. The rest of the batch went directly into the kitchen trash can.

precise,will

“Breadmaking is precise, but bread is also alive,” she told me. “You are far too intense. Whatever happened, let it go—it’s in the past. When you find your joy, your croissants will be good.”

Once freed from the wrong partner, I let my hair down—literally. I had kept my curly brown locks coiled in a severe bun every day for years; now, I let them fall onto my shoulders. I was spontaneous: I bought new lipstick for no reason. I was unabashedly quirky. I often pinched myself on especially happy days, fearing this state of being was ephemeral. When this true, unrepentant, boundless joy eventually came, I found the ability to produce edible bread.

Pooja Makhijani is the editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press), an anthology of essays by women that explores the complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families. She is also the author of Mama's Saris (Little Brown Books for Young Readers), a picture book. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, WSJ.com, Teen Vogue, VICE, Pacific Standard, Bon Appétit, Saveur, BuzzFeed, CityLab, and espnW among others.