Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts about Bread

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.


Erp said...

I confess to being an old fashion kneader (not that I've made much bread recently besides the item mentioned in It's Margaret's blog).

Bread also infiltrates our language.

Companions - those who share bread (pan)

Lady - originally meant loaf-kneader

Lord - originally meant loaf-keeper (i.e., one who decided who got to eat the bread)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Lovely post, IT. I like how you tie the post into the present lectionary readings about Jesus as the "bread of life".

I'm not a bread-maker, but I love the smell and taste of freshly-baked bread. Grandpère makes sourdough bread, which is delicious, and beer bread, which is tasty, too.

Ann said...

Salivating as I read this. Yum yum. Reminded me of this prayer by Alla Bozarth Campbell

Bakerwoman God,
I am your living Bread.
Strong, brown, Bakerwoman God.
I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,
well-kneaded by some divine and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth-hands.
I am bread well-kneaded.

Put me in fire, Bakerwoman God,
put me in your own bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard, brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.

Break me, Bakerwoman God!
I am broken under your caring Word.
Bakerwoman God,
Remake me.

Alla Bozarth-Campbell

Anonymous said...

Bread slathered in butter?!?! HERESY!!! You have clearly left the True Faith, IT. *ducks*

Okay, so maybe not. However, I am someone who actually prefers my bread plain most of the time. I started doing it with banana bread and zuchini bread. Then I tried it with various wheat multigrain breads. And lately, I've even taken to having my white bread (though I rarely have white bread) plain. It's a practice that has gained me a number of odd looks from friends and family, but it's true.

In certain Italian restaurants, I will dip my bread in the olive oil, black pepper, and other spices they provide. But never butter.

And the bread you made sounds delicious.

-- Jarred.

Ann said...

Jarred - I like just plain bread too - oh so flavorful.

IT said...

I agree, it's good with nothing especially fresh. Though the kids like it with butter. BP likes to make dipping sauces with good olive oil and herbs. Actually we also like putting some of our home-made pesto on it too.

Erp said...

I confess to a liking for sharp cheddar on warm granary rolls with maybe a little bit of green tomato chutney (but that might be because of childhood memories).

IT said...

Look people, we are not going to have Purity Tests separating out those who eat their bread unadorned from those who enjoy accentuating it with various spreads and condiments! This is an inclusive bakery!

Grandmère Mimi said...

I don't know if I can share the same table with those who eat their bread with nothing on it.

NancyP said...

IT - Personally, I am rather fond of my fuzzy giant purple T4 phage virion with black pipecleaner "legs" (tail fibers). (I suppose that I really ought to have workhorse E.coli hanging around my bookshelf too, but a purple icosahedron with black tail - who could pass it up?). The patron of our region, the yeast Histoplasma capsulatum, does not come in plush yet. (90%+ of natives of Ohio River and mid-Mississippi River valleys are seropositive for Histo, and many of us sport small calcified granulomas on chest xray.)

IT said...

nancyP, I will consider it just a phage you're going through ...! (I cut my teeth on P2/P4)

Move along here people, nothing to see....

David said...

::groans at IT's pun::

So, do you y'all buy your plush microbes at Think Geek ? :)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Y'all still eatin' bread?

Erp said...

Rice tonight.

IT said...

What a great store, David! Thanks for the tip.....a USB-powered Tesla ball, WOW!

Ann said...

toys r us LOL

NancyP said...

My medical school bookstore has a flock of these plush microbes, in addition to stomach keychains, femur pens, and tee-shirts with body outlines (the last popular with the attendees of our death investigation course for pathologists, police, and the occasional mystery writer).

BTW, IT, I promise to house my plush coli across the room from the purple phage - wouldn't want any exploding stuffing all over the floor.....

IT said...

The LA coroner's office also has a gift store. One popular item is a beach towel with the chalk body outline.

I'm glad you will keep your phage from bursting your E.coli, NancyP.