I first learned about embodied prayer in my undergraduate dance company, Zoe’s Feet.
Most nights, we would gather together in small groups to rehearse different pieces. But every Monday evening we'd meet for one large-group rehearsal to practice technique, to learn new choreography, and, most of all, to pray. Not with words, but with our bodies – allowing our physical movements to express our longings, joys, and petitions in a way that language could never quite capture.
My relationship to my body – and consequently, to food – carried deep scars from my younger days as a ballerina. When I first joined Zoe’s Feet, I was comfortable enough in the calculated confines of choreographed routines, but I failed to find beauty or freedom in unstructured improvisation. However the liturgical act of consistently praying in this manner slowly transformed my relationship with my body and with improv dance itself.
A few years later, I found my relationship to creating food similar to my earlier relationship with dance. I felt safety in the calculated recipes of baking and pastry, broken by the industry but with deep love for the technique. Returning to the tenderness of embodied prayer, I applied what I’d learned in Zoe’s Feet to the process of making bread.
While most of my days were spent weighing and temp-ing, following precise ratios, at home I would hide the kitchen scale and thermometer away and allow myself to feel the needs of the dough. A little starter – bubbling with life – some water and whichever blend of grains I desired.
As I felt the mixture transform from a shaggy mess to a wet slop and finally a strong dough, I expressed my longings, joys, and petitions in the rhythms of kneading. And again, over time, the liturgical act of praying in this manner began to heal my relationship with the action itself.
This pumpkin sourdough grew out of that practice. Some rounds failed terribly, others were devoured before they fully cooled. After several successes I decided to pull the scale back out to calculate an actual recipe.
You’ll need an active starter, or levain. If you don’t have one, ask around – it’s often not hard to find someone who does. Or you can make one yourself, which will take about a week. Patience is the name of the game with bread, so you might as well get practice from the start.
If you’ve never made sourdough before, I’d recommend reading up a bit on it first – and expect to make some mistakes. Like improv dance, baking sourdough is learnt primarily over time, through feel.
Though I tend to write recipes here in American standard volumes, I really prefer to use metric weights, particularly for bread. I’ve stuck with volumes for the spices and mix-ins, but I opted to go with the rest in grams – along with baker’s percentages thrown in for the serious bread makers among you.
100 grams levain (25%)
140 grams water (35%)
50 grams whole wheat flour (12%)
120 grams water (30%)
355 grams all-purpose flour (88%)
120 grams pumpkin (30%)
10 grams salt (2.5%)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup golden raisins, hydrated in apple cider
1/2 cup pecans or pumpkin seeds
1. In a medium sized bowl, mix together the active levain, the first portion of water, and the whole wheat flour. Let rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour – the longer it rests, the more complex the flavor will be.
2. Add the second portion of water and the all purpose flour, mix until the flour is hydrated and it forms a shaggy dough. Let rest for 30 minutes – what bakers call an autolyse.
3. Mix together the pumpkin, salt, and spices, and blend into the dough. It will seem resistant to blending at first, just squeeze the dough and the pumpkin together a few times and let rest for fifteen minutes. It will come together more thoroughly later on.
4. Stretch and fold the dough four times, pulling from the edge farthest from you, closest to you, on your right, and on your left. Repeat this technique every 15 minutes for the next hour.
5. Cover the dough loosely with a towel and let rest for at least 4 hours, up to 8 hours. If you’d like to let it rest longer, press plastic wrap along the top of the dough and place in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Pull the dough out of the fridge 1 hour before you are ready to bake.
6. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500°F along with your dutch oven, cast iron pan, baking stone, or sheet tray. Pour your dough onto a lightly floured surface. Shape the dough into a round by folding it in half vertically and horizontally, flipping so that the seam is on the bottom, and pulling towards yourself to tighten. If you are adding raisins, nuts, and/or seeds, fold them in during this shaping. Let rest at least fifteen minutes before baking.
7. Remove the hot tray from the oven, carefully transfer the dough onto the tray. Slice the top about 1/2-inch deep and 3-inches long. Brush with water, and place back into the oven. Turn the heat down to 450°F.
8. Let bake for 30 minutes, until the crust is dark and crunchy. Remove from the oven, cool, and enjoy.
The pumpkin not only adds an extra layer of flavor, but it provides extra moisture that gives this bread incredible texture. The whole-wheat preferment aids in creating a deep, flavorful crust and the spices add just that underlying profile you’d expect to accompany pumpkin. It’s not a sweet dough, so don’t hesitate to use it in savory applications – but toasted and drizzled with a bit of honey, it’s all you need for dessert.
Have you ever made bread as a meditative or prayerful act? Tell us about it in the comments below!