Platonic Dating: Practical Solutions… (or How to Make Bread)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a theoretical proposition on the subject of platonic dating. For the most part, this proposal was well-received, however there were a few dissenting (or at least, confused) voices that made themselves known. And so, before moving onto some practical solutions to the platonic dating conundrum, I should like to clarify a few points.

To start, it is important to emphasize that the key word in my conception of platonic dating is dating – that is to say, the act of going out with someone for the explicit purpose of getting to know them better. It must not be confused with platonic friendship, for the word friendship describes a pre-existing state, a state of being: we are friends.

In contrast, dating can be understood as a process of becoming. My desire or goal on a platonic date is to become friends with someone of the opposite sex, to develop an intimacy or closeness with this person, to become allies or confidantes, to dig beneath the surface. For the sake of clarity, and because I have an easy rapport with many of them, I refer to many of my friends’ husbands and partners as friends. But are we really friends? We are friendly, to be sure. But have these relationships really evolved beyond a state of fond acquaintanceship?

Thus the need for one-on-one platonic dating… a time to test the waters, to build a foundation, and create a space where bonding of a more meaningful and intimate nature can begin. But this, as I mentioned before, can be awkward – just think about how awful a non-platonic date can be, sitting across the table from someone you don’t know very well and trying to think of something to say. Now, it is entirely likely that what I am actually doing here is exposing my own social phobias about awkward dates, and yet surely, I cannot be alone on this. My solution? To base the platonic date, at least initially, on a specific fixed-duration task or activity that requires your focused attention, but still allows for an easy flow of conversation.

Sociologists differentiate between the manifest (or intentional) and latent (unintentional) functions of activities and endeavors. We go to school to learn, and to get an education, but school is also where we make friends, develop a sense of self, clarify our values, and acquire appropriate behaviours. Here, the manifest function may be to see an art show, teach someone how to knit, or get the garden weeded, while the latent functions are many: companionship, a sense of shared accomplishment, developing a sense of someone’s strengths and weaknesses, their talents and insecurities, and creating a bond.

I had what I would define as my first conscious platonic date a few weeks ago, and though many of these latent functions were achieved, our manifest function was to teach me how to bake bread.

As the socially-maladjusted person that I seem to be, I must confess to being a bit nervous about this one-on-one encounter, especially since it was going to take us about six hours to complete the task, three of which would be spent waiting for the dough to rise. Now, I cannot speak for the other participant, but I suspect that he was feeling some of my apprehension, as he called me in advance to confirm some possible viewing options to fill those emptier hours. Though it is only in retrospect that I can see this clearly, I did cram for the date by preparing a mental list of common interests: crime fiction and British comedy, WFMU and its various hosts, cooking and the men who write about it: Bittman, Steingarten, Pollan, et al. And armed with my sponge (see below), my knitting – in case some private time was deemed necessary – and my barrage of possible conversation topics, I set out for our adventure.

The aforementioned sponge – a mixture of yeast, flour and something sweet that you beat together and let sit for an hour or so – is really the key to this incredible bread, which is based on the techniques and philosophies laid out in the The Tassajara Bread Book (1971). Like many hippie cookbooks from that era, the Tassajara philosophy, with its focus on whole grains and sustainable living rings true today. Produced in collaboration with the Zen Centre from which it takes its name, it is also a very nurturing tome, encouraging the reader (and baker) to “make deepest love all the time, concentrating not on the food, but on yourself: making your best effort to allow things to fulfill their functions.” Now, you might find this a little too touchy-feely for your tastes, but I gotta tell you, there is something lovely about a cookbook that gives you the freedom to be yourself, and know that there are no mistakes. And if you can have somebody help you the first time around so you don’t question yourself so much, you start to understand why some people find baking bread to be a meditative experience.

THE SPONGE

As I stated above, you start with the sponge because it allows the yeast to start growing and means less kneading later on. We went with 4 cups of water – 1 boiling and 3 from the tap so that the resulting water was lukewarm. Then I added one packet of yeast and 1/2 cup of molasses. You stir it up and make sure that it is doing something… bubbling or breaking down or foaming. After a few minutes, you whisk it up and start adding the flour. I added 5 cups of white flour and 1 of whole wheat, knowing that for this first time around, white flour makes for a lighter bread. You end up with a mud-like consistency that you whip for about two minutes (or as the book says, about 100 times) and then cover with saran wrap.

THE DOUGH

After about 60-90 minutes, you start to fold in the other ingredients. Here, the most important thing is to not break the strings that have formed. Instead, you fold in the ingredients, turning the bowl about 90 degrees on each turn, always moving in the same direction. First, we added a big pinch of salt and covered the top of the bowl with a big glug of olive oil – a little more than you might think was appropriate. Then we started to add the flour: some more white, some whole wheat, some spelt, and some whole oats for texture. And for the next chunk of time, until the dough started to naturally form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl, we turned and folded, turned and folded. I think we added about 5-6 more cups of flour, but I like the idea that we were not counting. We just watched the dough and waited for it to look like it was ready to stand on its own.

Once you get to this stage, you can turn the dough onto a floured surface and begin to knead it, picking up the back of the dough, pulling it toward you and folding it down, and then pushing it back. Turn it on a 45 degree angle and repeat. Turn and repeat. Or as the book says: turn, fold, push. You want to get a rhythm going so that your movements become zen.

The whole time you are doing this, you are incorporating both the crumbs from the board and your hands, and as much flour as you need, because you want it to stop being sticky. When you are done, and it is smooth and elastic in tone, place it into a well-oiled bowl and then turn it over so that the seam of the ball is down. Cover it with saran wrap and make yourself some lunch.

THE BREAD

After it has been rising for about an hour, and looks about twice as big as it was, punch it down to get all the air out of it. You don’t want to literally punch it. Instead, firmly push your fist repeatedly into its surface so that all the air comes out. Then cover it again, and let is sit for about another hour.

When you are ready to finally bake the bread, preheat the oven to about 350 degrees. A handy tip that I learned on my date is to put an empty cast iron frying pan into the oven. Because it holds the heat so well, you can open the door without so much of the heat escaping.

Take your dough and cut it into three pieces. Then, one at a time, engage in a process of kneading and turning so that each piece becomes a nice round ball. Do them one at a time, and then leave them while you move onto the next one. When all three are done, form them into logs and place them with the seam side down on an oiled cookie sheet. Let them rise about 20 more minutes while the oven is heating up.

When they are just about to go into the oven, cut a deep slit into each one so that steam can get out and brush the whole thing with quite a bit of water. Bake for about 50-70 minutes. You will know when they are done if they are nice and brown looking and if they sound hollow when you tap their bottoms. To add to the cooking magic, you can add some water to that heated cast iron pan you’ve got in there, but be careful when you do it, as you don’t want to burn yourself or spill water on the electrical elements.

Another handy trick I learned is that you must resist eating the bread before it is ready. If you can possibly control yourself, do not cut it for AT LEAST an hour, if not longer. Store in a plastic bag or freeze for future use. It thaws easily and makes a lovely toast.

Once again, though I cannot speak for my co-participant, I would have to declare the date a success – and not just because I came home with three loaves of amazing bread. In truth, what one can sometimes discover on a platonic date is that there actually is more in place than just a friendly acquaintanceship, and that all the friendship needs to flourish is a little nurturing.

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