Perfection, Step By Step
Last week, I bit into a French baguette as I have done many times before. But this time, it was perfect.
The previous day, I had carefully mixed the flour, water, yeast and salt together and then gently kneaded the wet dough. I tried to pay attention as I let the dough rise and then punched it down three times. After several hours, I shaped the dough into three baguettes by folding and cajoling it, as I had learned how from watching the bakers in Paris. Then, I put them to rest in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, I started a fire in the woodfired oven and, again, orepeated the gestures I have been doing for many years. Once the fire died, and the coals burned down, the oven was ready for the baguettes. And then, the magic happened. The baguettes came out with that thin crust that crackles when you pinch it, and the inside was light and airy but full of flavor, and the outside was that golden caramel colour, and that first bite set me right down on a dark green chair in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Perfection!
So what is perfection? Often, I think of it as a state that can never be reached. It’s only something that I try to attain but as an imperfect human fail at miserably. But what I have experienced is different than that. Instead of looking at the end goal, I try to follow the process and be happy for each level of perfection I see along the way. I often have an image in my head of what perfection is and I just need to adjust it. Sometimes, acceptance of myself and my abilities and knowing that I do the best I can is enough. Each and every day, I find something that is perfect in its way. And all of a sudden, I see a world where there is a lot of perfection.
For every sad loaf of bread over my years of baking, there have been many good ones. And every now and then, a perfect one. If I had stopped baking because of those few sad loaves, I would never have been happy. So I continue to plug along. I focus on the act of mixing, and shaping and baking. I tweak this or that. I soak in the satiny feel of dough as it gets kneaded. I marvel every time at the work of the yeast, making the dough rise. I smell that rich yeasty scent in the air. Each of those things are perfect. And when I taste the goodness of baked bread once it comes out of the oven, I realize that perfection lays there too.
I have my standards. Sometimes, they seem out of reach. But working every day and accepting some small victories along the way, and seeing how far I’ve come, makes me realize that perfection is in each step I take. And those daily imperfections that glare at me are the diamonds in the rough waiting for their turn to shine.