Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In Praise of Uncertainty

In quantum mechanics there is an assertion that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice-versa. Then there is the "observer effect", which notes that measurements of certain systems cannot be made, without affecting the systems. Now I know we don't live at the quantum level, we are bigger; but here in my tiny kitchen tonight, with the permeating smell of the yeasty dough that is fermenting in the corner, I find comfort in equations.

I know this will not be an easy topic to agree on. Some things exist in such an array of variations that it is almost futile to even aspire to agree, but in this case that may in fact be totally apropos. By "this case", of course, I mean the case of uncertainty. So much of what we do seems to be in an effort to eliminate as much uncertainty from our lives as possible. We have been taught to find comfort in knowing, in mastering the possibilities, in making informed and secure decisions. We have entire careers dedicated to managing risk, maximizing efficiency, narrowing possibilities. We have formulas, weapons, armies, guarantees. This particular result, or your money back. But here from my little kitchen in my little town I'm writing to you in defense of something that we may have over-antagonized.

Lets shrink back to the quantum level again, for the sake of argument. The observer's presence effects the system being observed, and therefore the system's parameters become impossible to determine with exactitude. Is this not lovely? The system is marked by its observer, and by extension, the observer by his system. Am I the only one who finds poetry in that? I see this everywhere. I water the seeds I've planted in my little herb box and notice the chives peaking out and not the sage. I kneed the same dough that refused to rise last week, and which today is elastic and fecund. I write pages of a thesis that may never be completed or defended, edit poems that may never be read by anyone, daydream about a life which I may never find, and amid all this uncertainty I find a hazy kind of comfort. If my life were to turn into an instructional manual, I would like the bi-line to read: how not to know and like it.

nota bene: this time someone dismisses the "watched kettle doesn't boil" theory as superstition, play the quantum card and cite Heisenberg's "observer effect." Here is an equation: ψ = Σanψn

An Elaborate Ciabatta Recipe that may or may not yield good results

1/2 tsp active dry yeast (not instant)
3tbsp warm milk
3/4 C Water (room temp please)
250g starter (at least 12 hours old)
300g flour (maybe more)
1/2 tbsp salt

This will take a while.

Stir the yeast into the milk in a mixer bowl, and let stand about 10 minutes. Add the water, oil, and biga (starter) and mix with a wooden spoon until blended. Mix the flour and salt, add to the bowl, and mix for 2 to 3 minutes with spoon, then flour your hand and knead for 4 minutes. Rest, have a sip of wine, and knead again (in the bowl or on a floured surface) for a few minutes adding as little flour as possible, until the dough is velvety, springy, and moist. This is an important step. This is where you get strength and porosity for your dough, so try to do this part well.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours. The dough will be full of awesome big bubbles, very supple, and kind of sticky.
Cut the dough into 2 equal pieces on a well-floured surface. Roll each piece into a cylinder, then stretch each cylinder into a rectangle, pulling with your fingers to get each piece is longish and wideish.
Generously flour 2 pieces of parchment paper placed on upside-down baking sheets. Place each loaf, on a piece of parchment. Dimple the loaves vigorously with your fingertips or knuckles so that they won’t rise too much. The dough will look heavily pockmarked, but it is very resilient, so don’t worry your little heart. It will all be alright. Cover the loaves loosely with damp towels and let rise until puffy but not doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The loaves will look flat and stupid and unpromising, but don’t give up; they will become beautiful swans in the oven.
About 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC) and slide your baking stones on the center rack to heat. If you have no stones, buy some. If you don’t want to, use a griddle, or… maybe something cast iron. I like cast iron for bread.
Before baking the ciabatta, sprinkle the stones with cornmeal. Carefully invert each loaf onto a stone. If the dough sticks a bit to the parchment, just gently work it free from the paper. If you need to, you can leave the paper and remove it 10 minutes later. Bake for a total of 20 to 25 minutes, spraying the oven with water in the first 10 minutes. Transfer the loaves to wire racks to cool.
Let me know how it went. Ciabatta is just as hard to bake as baguette, if you ask me… so if you pull this off I’m really proud of you.


  1. Mina, I love everything about this post...

    How do I say in thoughtful words, that I agree with each idea? How do I say that this is so inspiring in a life changing way? Not sure I can articulate at the moment so then it's a... hearty
    brava....for all of it!


  2. oh yes I really love your writing Mina!
    So glad you are around on this world wide web so full of _______ (insert your choice!)

    AND thanks as always for the lovely comments on my blog.


  3. I heart the post. Being an earth sign, I dislike uncertainity but somewhere inside me there is a philosopher who knows that uncertainity is where I am and will be.
    The ciabatta must have been wonderful. Can tell from the dough

  4. mina - yes. a thousand times, yes. i've always been quite certain about uncertainty. i love it well. and if, suddenly, my life were to start following a reasoned road, i would fall off my tilted axis.