The Bread We Eat
IN A ristorante in Buenos Aires, Argentina, hungry patrons watch as a porteño of Italian ancestry sends a disk whiffing into the air and catches it, repeating the performance over and over to make a pizza. In Lebanon a housewife flips a similar disk from forearm to forearm, each time rotating it to maintain its circle. In Mexico a young woman pats out a tortilia disk between her palms, much as does her counter part in distant India.
Still differently, a cook in Ethiopia, when making injera, pours a ring of soupy liquid on a griddle, and with a counterclockwise movement fills it in with ever smaller circles spilling from a ladling tin. Yet, a cook in Europe or in the Americas will punch down a spongy mass and watch it “rise” again. In China a housewife will work and “rest” a similar glob.
There are many different approaches in fashioning the hundreds of forms in which our daily bread appears.
Some of these aforementioned breads, even though they end up being flat, do contain leavening or “lightening” agents, substances that will make them rise. However, the yeast is especially effective in raising dough that contains wheat flour.
The Stuff Called Gluten
What gives wheat flour this distinction? The amount of gluten that it contains. Gluten is described in the dictionary in these words: “A tenacious tough elastic protein substance . . . that gives to dough cohesiveness and ability to hold gases.” Those words supply the very epitome and heart of what gluten is and does; yet a whole marvelous God-given chemistry goes on unseen in it and in the dough beneath our hands.
I first met gluten on the field of battle. That was what my kitchen had become when, as a bride, I first attempted to make bread. I held what must have been the rather outstanding distinction of having produced leavened loaves that had decreased in size rather than increased. Thus they had compacted into something that Egyptian pharaohs would have welcomed had they been seeking rye bricks!
Subsequent ventures were not that disastrous, but fell short of the quality or dependability that is needed when valuable ingredients are put to work. My problems did not disappear until I found that baking bread was like learning a second language. Professional bakers may quail at my words when I say that; just as you, when you learn a language, must at some point stop translating and think in the new language, so with bread you must put aside measured quantities and think texture. Ingredients vary from one place to another, and, most importantly, moisture content in flour, as well as chemical structure, varies so greatly that to measure by volume can be catastrophic.
For instance, use American ingredients and follow an unaltered French bread recipe and you may produce a product that tastes nothing at all like the delicious loaves one seeks out in the city along the Seine. The famous chef Julia Child and her companion Simone Beck take eleven pages to give a recipe for making French bread adjusted to U.S. flour and leavenings. An additional six pages, making seventeen pages in all, are needed to explain it in its various forms! All of this to produce a product that has FOUR ingredients, one of which is water! Yet, the chemistry is so delicately balanced that to do other than follow these instructions is to miss the mark of realizing the flavor and texture of the product that is famous from Normandy to Provence.
Admittedly, careful measuring by weight can produce superb subtleties of texture and flavor, but most of us need a way to make an everyday nutritious loaf of bread that tastes good, that keeps reasonably well and that can be achieved dependably. One word of caution: You can make this bread fairly rapidly, but, as Julia Child warns about yeast products, you miss something if you do not let the flavor of your yeast develop. So, whenever possible, I start my bread at least the day before I wish to bake it, and I do all the rising of it at as cool a temperature as time and materials permit.
At this point we have before us flour, yeast, sugar, salt, one can of milk, and a little vegetable oil or melted butter. For the bread we are going to make, that is all that we need. If sugar is not on hand, or oil is not available, you can do without them. In dire circumstances you can even do without the salt. It won’t taste as good, but it will nourish you. The absolute essentials are the flour, the yeast, the can of milk or another liquid—even water. But now, let’s make this bread under optimum circumstances.
Begin with the Yeast
I actually don’t measure, and the object of this recipe is to teach you not to; but since you aren’t really in my kitchen and there is a difference between a teaspoon and a gallon, I shall speak in approximates so you will have a “ball park” impression of amounts. Take about a cup of warm water, not hot; put about one teaspoon of sugar into it and a packet of dry yeast or a cake of yeast; dissolve it.
As we go along in this recipe we’re going to talk about why we are doing things. Well, you may not know it, but the moment you introduce that yeast to water, you have planted a garden. Yes, and your teaspoon of sugar was “fertilizer” for it. As you look at this beige “soup” that you’ve created, you are actually looking at a microscopic botanical explosion beyond the range of your vision. Now, add enough flour to thicken your soup. You have just given your yeast something really substantial to feed upon, and therefore to multiply it greatly. But you have also released another invisible drama!
The marriage of gluten and yeast has begun. For just as the water awakened the yeast to frenzied life and reproduction, so the water releases the gluten from the flour and it begins to develop in lengthening microscopic threads, a process that you can accelerate by stirring. And it is illustratively, though not technically, the beginning of a symbiotic relationship. What is symbiosis? It is a living together of two dissimilar things by means of an interdependence.
Well, let’s set this aside in a place that is not too warm, not too cold. If you want, this little “garden” can go on for days, just so long as you “feed and water” it. You can allow it to sour, or you can use buttermilk as your liquid, and start it as the long-running starter for sourdough.*
If it is difficult to obtain yeast where you live, then you must “grow” a large amount of this if you are going to be baking bread daily. So add liquid and flour (“feed” it) over a period of time until you have enough. You should use at least a cup of what you have grown here if you wish to leave some for future use, but we will proceed on the basis that we’re doing this just once. Sometimes in the first fifteen minutes you will see bubbles, indicating that your yeast is alive and all of what we have been talking about is going on. If you would like not to be bothered with this for several hours, or you would like to go to bed, just stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of flour. If it is any stiffer than “gluey,” then add some water. At this point it is almost impossible to do anything to hurt it except to get it too warm or to kill it with an excess of salt. For that reason I’ve not told you to put in salt.
Look! The Dough Begins to Grow
You will notice that, as time passes, the dough increases in size. It is because both of your ingredients are growing. The gluten has grown into a marvelous cellular network that entraps the natural by-product of living organisms. YOU are alive, and the by-product of your lungs is carbon dioxide. It is the by-product of activated yeast too! So, as the tendrils of gluten slither outward and upward, intertwining, they encapsulate the gas from the living yeast.
After it has climbed the sides of your bowl to double itself, stir it down, add enough flour to make it workable and begin that age-old work of bakers the world over. Knead it. It will come naturally. Put the real action into the heel of your hand, bringing the dough forward toward you with your fingers, and rhythmically pushing it down and away, moving the mass around circularly as you do it. Again, what is going on inside? You are stimulating the activity of the gluten by aiding in the stringing out and the lengthening of the gluten threads. Thus, you are toughening it, much as you might tighten the weave of a tapestry by introducing more weft threads across the warp.
In making some kinds of Chinese bread, or man t’ou, a Chinese housewife too uses yeast, making use of the power inside her dough. But in her other kinds of man t’ou products her mother will have taught her to let the dough “rest.” Why? Chinese cookery is stovetop. So Chinese bread is steamed, including man t’ou. She wants her steamed bread to be tender. As she lets the dough “rest,” the tendrils of gluten relax, wither and recede. Her “dragon” sleeps. Quickly, deftly she will form bits of her quiescent dough into flower-shaped rolls and put them on her steaming rack. In minutes, out will come something between a Western fluffy dumpling and bread. Delicious!
This same desire not to stimulate the gluten is what prompts the warning, “Handle lightly,” in recipes for baking-powder biscuits or scones. Bakers of these touch them lightly with fork or fingers, just enough to bring the ingredients together. The desire here is to have a baked product that is both fluffy and “short,” tender to the point of almost coming apart.
More Watching and Working
Let’s look again at our mixture of yeast and flour and sugar. After we have done some kneading, why don’t we just put all the rest of our ingredients in? Pour in a standard 13-fluid-ounce can of evaporated milk. You can mix one teaspoon of salt in this milk first, or mix it in your dry flour—ABOUT 4 more cups. It could be as little as 3 1/2 cups or as much as 5 cups. At this point you may want to add 3 tablespoons of oil or cooled melted butter. This will improve the keeping quality of the baked bread. A little more won’t hurt, nor will its total absence. But notice, the only standard measure you have here is the milk. Add the flour slowly until you begin to get a ball. Keep on adding. Eventually it will stick together enough to be removed from the bowl to a floured breadboard. Now work your dough, kneading it, adding flour as you go, working it in—and keep thinking about what is happening to the gluten in there. It will encourage you not to quit too soon. (Egyptian rye bricks. Remember?)
Actually, all recipes for making bread require you to use judgment. Look at them, don’t they say something about “until smooth and elastic”? That’s the clue. Look at your dough. It will have a wet, sticky appearance even after you have gotten all the flour into the mass that you can. But it will change at some point after that, simply from the action of your hands as you press it against the breadboard. The outer surface will become smooth, and you will feel the elasticity develop. The dough will no longer open to be gluey inside. If you were to pull it apart, it would be the same inside as out, possessed of a oneness, a cohesiveness so that, when you stretch it, it will resist. From the moment you recognize this quality, from that day forward, you can make this bread . . . without measuring. The key to your bread is not in your knowing how much specifically of any one thing you put in it; but in your recognizing when it has reached this stage. And this knowledge overcomes the variabilities in the ingredients from one time to another or one place to another.
Pour a little oil in your bowl or grease it, pick up your dough and roll it around in the bowl. This will coat the doughball with oil. Lightly cover the bowl with a towel. Leave it to double. Punch down, work it a little and now put it into two greased loaf pans. Have the dough touch the ends. It will give it purchase to help it to climb. Oil the top and set aside to double.
Having found your basic dependable “non-recipe,” you may want to branch out—but however far your branches reach, always remember that you are “gardening” and “weaving” when you are making bread! The pizza maker when tossing the dough disk, though he does it partly for showmanship, is weaving a tough platter with gluten threads for what he will serve up upon it. The Lebanese lady is doing much the same thing.
The Moment of Success and Satisfaction
But now we come to the moment when you first share the kitchen miracle of bread with your family. No, this is not when you bring it to the table. It is when you put it into the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and it first perfumes your kitchen. It is an aroma that touches the deepest reservoir of the physical sense of well-being. Do you want a shining crust? Butter the top. Do you want a thick heavy crust to crunch? Then see to it that a pan of water accompanies your bread into the oven. Set the pan of water on the floor of the oven, and its steam will seal your bread in a protective crust. Forty or fifty minutes later the bread should be done. Turn it out of its pans, rap it on the bottom, and if it sounds hollow it is done.
So versatile are breads that some are made to rise under water. Some, such as bagels, are boiled two minutes before being baked! Like injera, the bread of Ethiopia, some part of it can even be precooked and then used to make the batter. You can do almost anything with bread, except say “No, thank you” when, hot from the oven or fire, it is offered to you. So, whether your favorite is pizza, piti (Syrian or Arabic “pocket bread”), chapati, tortilla, injera or man t’ou, biscuits or scones or Norwegian flatbrød—try making your own bread!—Contributed.
For more details, see Awake!, September 8, 1968.