In my last post, I intended to get practical but instead waxed philosophical. Let me recommend a book that has much good information on bread-making. The Ultimate Bread and Baking Book by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake is an excellent source of not just recipes but techniques for making all sorts of breads. It has good pictures, too. My one quibble is that is was written from a British POV, and although the measurements have been adapted to the American system, it still has that Brit feel to it. However, it is very close to the book on bread that I always wanted to write (except that mine would have had fewer recipes and a lot more history and philosophy).
Food: August 2003 Archives
The liturgical readings lately have been fairly Eucharistic, what with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, manna in the wilderness, and so on. I do not think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that the ability to make bread of some kind was a major gift from God, and made it possible for humans to have some assurance of food from day to day. Grains and legumes keep well, and can be stored up against times of drought or failures of hunting, herding, and harvesting. I have found it interesting over the last 6 months to see how topics of conversation (memes, if you will) pop uo around St. Blog's seemingly in response to the readings. This was brought to my mind earlier today by the conversations going on about baking of pizza - which is after all, a flat bread with added goods to make it a meal.
Various grains are mentioned in the Bible. Barley was probably the commonest grain and was the source of the daily bread for most, as it grows easily and is very productive. Barley that was soaked and fermented became beer, and was probably the source of the leaven for the early forms of leavened bread. Yeast from the atmosphere fell into the container, and the sour and bubbly liquid was found to have interesting effects, much like that of wine. And the solids left behind after the liquid was strained out could be reliably counted on to have the same effect on another batch of soaked barley. Barley was commonly ground and bound into a dough with water and oil, then baked as a griddle type of cake (think tortilla). Somewhere along the line, some kitchen genius decided to use some of the beer barley in the barley cake mixture, and found that it made a cake that was more tender if more perishable.
There is one big problem with using barley alone as the base for a yeast bread. The barley doesn't really form a strong structure that traps the gases given off by the yeast, and so the cakes are still pretty flat and crunchy. Enter the grain spelt (and later wheat and rye). Spelt, wheat, and rye all contain pretty high concentrations of a protein named gluten. Gluten, when activated by moisture and mechanical activity (kneading) forms strong and elastic webs that act as a framework. If you want to see gluten, mix 1/2 cup (white) wheat flour with just enough water to form a dough. Punch and pound the dough until it is smooth. THen take the dough and plunge it into a basin of clean cool water, continuing to squeeze the dough in your hands. The water will get really gummy as the starch rinses out of your ball of dough, and you will be left holding a handful of stringy gray strands of gluten. Gluten has been used as the base for some vegetarian products like seitan and Loma Linda foods products. It is also possible to buy gluten flour - where the wheat has been refined and the starch and protein separated out.
Anyhow, yeast leavened bread has been around for millenia, and until the last few centuries, the art of getting from the disparate raw ingredients to the finished loaf was passed down as part of the cook and baker's tradition. The grains had to be ground and kept fresh, there needed to be a sufficiency of gluten in the mixture to support the weight of the other ingredients, and the yeast had to be enticed into working its miracles. Traditionally, a wild yeast would be found and fermented, and a bit of the uncooked dough (the fermentum) would be kept from one baking to another to facilitate things. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread therefore represented an amazing act of faith in God - since it required that all yeast and even anything that could be fermented, down to the last crumb, be removed from the household for an entire week. Even raw flour was not permitted - only flour that had already been baked to the point where it would not spontaneously ferment. So every year, the household had to trust that God would send them leaven again. This is why being called to be leaven is so important a command to us as Christians.
OK, so in order to get our daily yeast-leavened bread, we need the right flour/grains, we need the leaven, and we also need time to wait on the process, an oven of some kind, and the ability to work the dough with the hands to form the gluten. Yeast is a living organism - it needs to be fed and it needs to be kept at the right temperature, and in the end it sacrifices its life so that we might eat bread. And we need to work the dough and form the gluten, but then we also need to rest the dough so that it can be shaped, and then we need to let it rest some more so that the yeast can do its work.
Unless you have actually made bread, it is easy to lose sight of what a miracle and gift from God it truly is!