I was reading a great interview with Maria Popova (the author of the Brain Pickings blog), within which she remarked:
“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”
She then goes on to talk about an idea that Thoreau wrote about, which is, as she puts it, “this beautiful passage where he talks about hard work. He says, basically, that the person who works hard doesn’t exert himself all day but has this leisure around accomplishing the task. He says that the hen lays just one egg, and the rest of the time, she goes around and she feeds on things that feed the next egg.”
This sentiment resonates with me a lot. It provokes some thought, reminding me of how fascinated I was this year to listen to snippets of the book Quiet. The book talks a lot about how our culture is geared towards extroverts: there's so much constant stimulation in the world these days (especially in New York!). Lights, people, taxis screeching, my work email constantly refilling no matter how much I go through it, my phone buzzing, new TV shows, news headlines flashing on billboards.
We're so programmed to constantly be consuming information, and I think some people really thrive on that energy and succeed in that environment. But frankly, I've realized I don't. I've always known I prefer quiet, open places like the farm, but now I'm more aware that this extends into my entire life. I'm calmer and more focused and more successful when I let less in.
It's second nature to assume that constant hard work is the right way. But that idea of all the little bits of your day contributing to one task (laying the egg) is such a nice way to reframe how we live. Everything we do, whether reading a book or taking a walk or calling your mom, contributes to our ability to do the things well that we want to do well.
Is this all an elaborate way of validating my desire to sometimes just hang out and eat apple slices with cinnamon on my terrace in the sun? It’s not…not that.
But seriously—I would like to give myself over more to just being. Not thinking about the next thing to come, or the thing that came before. Just letting myself fill up in the moment. Walking: feeling the stretch of my muscles and the air in my lungs and the street sounds around me. Cooking: noticing the smells, the sizzle of garlic in hot oil, the gentle slumping of onions in the pan as they soften and give way to heat. Reading: putting everything aside except my book (I’m reading this one and it is as good as everyone says), letting myself fall into the pages.
Baking: the heady smell of dark cocoa powder, the rivers that form when I pour melted butter into batter, the soft elasticity of bread dough as I knead it with the heel of my hand.
Try it for yourself. Make some babka this week—I mean, why not? And don’t do anything but that for the brief time it takes; for those few bright, calm moments, immerse yourself in the task again and fill yourself up for whatever comes next.
And if that sounds like absolute BS to you and you’re thinking “thanks lady, I am not into hippie kitchen meditation” then at the very least, you can fill yourself up with warm chocolate babka and forget about the rest!
**I owe the brilliant trick of the filling here to a recipe from the exceptionally talented Melissa Weller from her days at Sadelle’s in NYC (she is now baking at High Street on Hudson!). She uses crushed chocolate wafer cookies in the filling, which add excellent flavor and a tiny bit of “grit” which I find helps immensely in keeping the filling in precise, perfect swirls.
Best Chocolate Babka
For the dough
1/2 cup whole milk
1 envelope active dry yeast
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
For the filling
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups finely ground/crushed chocolate wafer cookies
1 tablespoon honey
pinch of salt
Lightly grease or line with parchment two 9” x 5” loaf pans.
Warm the milk in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Whisk in the yeast and let sit for about 5 minutes until foamy.
Transfer the milk and yeast to a large bowl and whisk in the egg yolks, vanilla, and melted butter. Add the sugar, salt, and flour and mix with a spoon until the dough comes together messily. It doesn't need to be smooth. Using your hands, knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth and elastic.
Grease the bowl lightly and place the dough in it. Cover it with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let it sit in a warm place until the dough is doubled with size, about 1 1/2 hours.
While the dough rises, make the filling. Melt the chocolate with the butter until smooth. Add the cookie crumbs, honey, and salt, and mix well.
Once the dough has risen, divide the dough in half. One at a time, turn each piece out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a 16” square. If the dough fights you, let it rise for a few minutes until it is relaxed enough to roll into shape.
Using a spoon, spread the filling across the dough, leaving an inch or two around the edges.
Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough lengthwise into a log. Using moistened fingers, pinch and seal the seam.
Cut each log in half crosswise. Take the two halves and lay them across each other—to form a cross. Twist them gently together, spiraling them (they won’t twist much as they’re bulky—that’s okay), and then place them in the prepared pans. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you want the bread to be shinier, whisk together an egg yolk with some water and brush it over the top of the bread. This is totally optional!
Place the bread in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool.