The First Loaf of the New Year: A Meditation on Bread-Making

A finished loaf of bread. It is round and a lovely medium brown. There are some ridges around its middle that were left by the proofing basket, which I think gives it character. It is sitting on a cooling rack.

It’s still dark outside as I weigh my flour. The light of the digital display on my kitchen scale glows blue and casts shadows across the mound of all-purpose and whole wheat flour in a glass bowl. I hold a meat thermometer under a stream of running water, adjusting the faucet handle by degrees in search of the perfect temperature before filling my Pyrex measuring cup and mixing the water with the flour to form a thick paste. Then, there’s time to relax while the flour absorbs the moisture, before salt and yeast are added and these simple ingredients are transformed into something altogether different.

There is waiting. There is checking, peering under the lid to see if anything has changed. There are moments to reach in and pull and fold sticky dough, then to step back and let it rest again. Unlike nearly everything else, there are no shortcuts, no way to speed up the process. Baking bread forces you to slow down and move at the pace of very small things. The yeast does not care what time it is nor what else I may have planned.

By mid-afternoon, my dough has evolved. It has structure now and bubbles of gas pressing against its skin. I lift it out of the bowl and shape it with floured hands, then place it in a floured basket and cover it again for one last rise.

I preheat the oven, knowing that it will take a long time to get up to temperature. A Dutch oven warms up inside. Then, a burst of movement, getting a perfectly proofed loaf out of its basket and into the Dutch oven without burning myself and getting it back into the oven before the moment passes.

A round of dough in a circular basket, sitting on top of a striped kitchen towel. There are small bubbles visible in the dough, indicating that it’s proved and ready to shape.

There is something special about baking the first bread of the new year. I’m not sure why it is, maybe it’s the closeness of working in the kitchen while it’s dark outside, or perhaps it’s the stillness that descends after the holidays. Sure, there’s a recipe to follow and ratios to adhere to, but a good bake comes down to more than checking off the steps in a list. It’s about instinct, intuition, and a pinch of luck.

When the bread emerges, it has developed a dark brown crust that crackles under my fingertips. It sounds hollow when tapped. The whole house smells like baking bread. And has the winter sun fades, I cut into the loaf to enjoy the first warm slice with butter.

It had been a long time since I’d made bread. It’s an investment of time—a whole day at least, and sometimes several. I’m not an expert by any means, but when I devote the energy to bread, I’m reminded of why I like making it in the first place. It’s satisfying to make something from scratch, to know I’m drawing on techniques that go back generations and connect me to bread-makers stretching back over 14,000 years.

Most of all, when I practice my bread making, I am reminded that good things take time and care. And that the time is worth it.

A slice of bread on a cutting board strewn with crumbs. The slice is elongated, pockmarked with holes, and sports a thick crust.

—30—

Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, and bread maker. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.

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