Bread seems to be on everyone's minds these days. Well, it's obvious for those of church-y bent, given the current readings; "I am the bread of life". Still, we tend to take bread for granted, yet it has such a vivid place in our language. Breaking bread, sharing bread, bread-and-cheese, and is anything more home-y than the smell of baking bread? Bread-and-water is a starvation diet, yet still enough to keep us alive. Man does not live on bread alone; a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou; and remember when "bread" was a synonym for "money"?
Bread of some form is found throughout many cultures. There's the pita bread of the Middle East; the unleavened parathas and lush yeasty naan of India, the crusty baguettes of France, the dense ryes of Scandanavia, the spoon breads of the American south. Centuries ago, unappetizing hardtack biscuits kept sailors and explorers alive during ocean crossings. Bread with something on it is a staple. We are welcomed to a restaurant table with a basket of bread (if we're lucky, it's warm). We soak up sauces with it. On this theme of bread, our blogger friend FranIAm is back with a new blog, There Will be Bread. Blogger friend It'sMargaret has also been thinking about bread at her blog.
And, on Sunday, I baked.
Bread is very satisfying to make. Simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast..... and the ultimate in warm comfort food results. (I admit to cheating and using a breadmachine to make my dough, but I generally hand shape it.) I like to experiment with recipes, switching in different flours or sweeteners, and looking hopefully after the first rise to see how robustly the yeast dealt with my latest variation. When I'm disciplined enough, I keep a sourdough around, with the addition of lactobacilli adding the tart sour flavor. I grew up near San Francisco, where chewy sourdough is a necessary accompaniment to many meals. But I don't have a starter on hand these days. I sing songs from the musical "The Baker's Wife" when I'm bread-making and BP rolls her eyes indulgently.
Sunday's loaf was a mix of whole wheat and white flour, with some steel cut oats. The oats basically vanish into the loaf but give it surprising height and lightness. Some honey as sweetener to give the yeast a push, and it rose beautifully. The industrious microbes did their thing turning starch into sugars into carbon dioxide, trapping air in the elastic straps of gluten. I also added millet, sesame, mustard, and poppy seeds, which gave it a delightful crunch. Nothing like fresh bread from the oven, slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil. I love seeing my family jump on the loaf, cutting big slices while it's still warm. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction to feed them. Even the Evil Parrot™ gets in on the act; she spots the loaf, and leans forward on her perch fluttering her wings with little squawks till she's given an edge to work on. We'll have the loaf on Monday night with our home-made tomato soup. Next week I'll probably do my garlic-rosemary ciabatta.
Bread also goes bad. It gets moldy (attacked by the cousins of the fungi that made it), dried out, or stale. Day-old bread is a discount purchase from a bakery. Sometimes, we have to move on from the end of the loaf, turn it into bread crumbs, or feed the birds, and make a new one. Bread has a cycle just like a living creature.
As the family baker, I think about these things while punching down or shaping my loaf. And when I'm done, I wash my hands free of the flour and sticky dough, and ask my beloved to slip the wedding ring back on my finger.
Incidentally, the giant microbe in the image is a plush baker's yeast cell. I have one on my desk at work, along with an Epstein-Barr virion. They are quite popular as geeky scientist gifts. I believe they now make a swine flu particle, but the E.coli which has flowing flagellae is far more attractive.