Let's begin with a thought experiment: You are Jesus. You have 5,000 mouths to feed and few resources--a couple dead fish and a handful of crusts. (1) Do you bake a risky soufflé? Do you put your powerful arm into whisking heart-shaped meringues? Do you sear a nice pot roast a thousand times over? No. You take those five loaves charitably offered by the kid in the crowd and you make bread. So much bread. Enough bread to feed the needy and still have extra for your disciples to collect in baskets. In the face of mass hunger, you logically turn to producing the most basic of foodstuffs. By going simple, you satisfy all those grumbling bellies, and even the vegetarians can't complain.
Whatever the contemporary diet fad slurs against carbohydrates, bread remains a dietary staple as well as a cultural marker of nutrition and plenty. (2) It's the frame of a sandwich, lending palmability to the mess of meats and mustards. Alongside water, it's the bare minimum of a prisoner's diet. It's the only way to make toast.
We all (even the gluten-allergic) need bread, but how many of us have ever kneaded it? The idea of actually baking a loaf of bread is closer to another thought experiment than practical reality. Our fingers begrudge kneading. The elementary ingredients appear somehow irreconcilable. Maybe it's the yeast. (3) For something so simple--bread is essentially just flour, water, yeast and salt--its creation remains a mystery to most. Instead of tasking ourselves with bread baking, we leave our dietary bedrock in the hands of professionals.
Perhaps we feel uncomfortable with the unavoidable chemistry of baking. Unlike stovetop cooking, where an extra clove of garlic can't hurt anything but your breath, baking is an exact science, requiring more measurement than finesse. Recalling Bunsen burners and dihydrogen monoxide toothpick structures may unfairly turn us against carbohydrate chemistry. If only we could Magic Schoolbus ourselves to check out bread's innards. (4) Just imagine the conga lines of simple sugars shot through with salt crystals jiggled into place beside the broken membranes of eggs, the squirming, inflating yeast buggers raising their roofs of dough to form a dome, a bun, a loaf!
But some people just prefer store-bought, I guess. When it comes to food, our culture has become BIY (buy it yourself) rather than DIY. Even the trend toward domestic revival has been co-opted and remarketed. Break-and-bake cookies and cake mix lower the baking ante so that homemade efforts only have to meet pre-packaged halfway. (5) From Scratch remains the smug label used by the kind of people who also use all the Kitchenaid mixer attachments. Homemade bread lingers in this baking elitist land; Betty Crocker and friends have yet to come up with a viable baguette mix. Our loaves come unboxed but already baked, bagged, sliced and sandwich-sized.
This is no diatribe against bakers and bakeries and the delicious goods they produce. Skilled tradespeople are better than us at what they do, and we appreciate being taken care of, even paying a premium for it. That premium pinches, however, when it comes to staple foods. Wheat hit a record price of $14 per bushel a year ago. Before that, bushel prices had been stable at $3.50 for over a decade. And even now that the price of wheat has fallen down to $5, bread prices keep rising. In the US, a loaf of whole wheat bread averages just under $2, up nine percent from 2008, according to Reuters. Just in time for the recession, we find a weak (but still economical!) argument for at-home bread production.
And forgive us our trespasses
I never intended to feed the multitudes, but I wanted to bake my own loaf of bread--to prove it can be done and maybe also make some toast or sandwiches or something. Two or so years ago, the foodiesphere blew up after Jeffery Steingarten in Vogue and Mark Bittman in the New York Times printed the recipe for the "no-knead" bread of SoHo's Sullivan Street Bakery. Steingarten went so far as to call it The Perfect Bread.
Perfection, it turns out, requires not practice but patience. The premise is simple and eponymous. In traditional bread baking, kneading is just a catalyst to get the yeast bouncing higher faster. If you have enough patience, a loaf of bread will rise on its own. You do nothing but buy, blend and bake the ingredients. The variation lies in the type and quality of the flour. I kept the existence of such a foolproof method in the back of my head, finally invested in some live yeast cultures and humbly endeavored to bake The Perfect Bread. (6)
In the evening I mixed together the ingredients and went to bed. Nineteen hours later, my dough looked more pasty than pastry. I had used all-purpose white flour, so it resembled cottage cheese, a vast amount, with a lurking greenish ring of olive oil (to overcome stickiness) guarding it against the bowl. I flipped it onto my floured work surface and rolled it over a couple times. It was simultaneously sticky and slick. I didn't see how it could become crusty or light and airy or anything but a rather unappealing lump. Then I had to wait another two hours for it to rise. I transferred it to the baking pot and cracked a couple "bun in the oven" jokes.
Forty-five minutes of gestation later, my bread baby was done. She was beautiful, every shade from raw to burnt on the crust, nicely smudged with extra flour, crispy seam, rising steam. It was superficially so satisfying (and I was afraid to puncture the faultless exterior and reveal possibly mushy insides) that I didn't really want to eat it. But I did, and inside was perfect too--the right cross-section of air pockets for leavened levity, spongy and fluffy at once. I enlisted a few dining companions to make sandwiches. They didn't express much gratitude, but it didn't matter. I had sublimated the whole idea of nutrition, of food, and come up with a real loaf of bread practically through sheer patience. (7) Even though it's matzo season, I think J.C. approved.
SIMONE LANDON B'10.5 eats cake.
1. Save the transubstantiation trick for the encore after the resurrection.
2. If you had any doubt as to the historical-political-social-cultural importance of bread, the Germans have handily founded a museum in its honor. Das Musuem der Brotkultur (open daily, if you're ever in Ulm) has, since 1955, been "dedicated to the 6,000-year history of bread as an indispensable basis of human culture and civilization," according to their website. The only disappointment of the 18,000-plus bread-related objects in the museum's collection is the lack of actual bread. They don't display or make or sell any fresh loaves, because "bread is not a museum artifact, but a food, freshly baked each day."
3. Respect the yeast. In the same way that active yogurt cultures creep me out, I have a hard time thinking about yeast and what it's actually doing in there. But I learned my lesson in a knead-intensive challah attempt. Accidentally adding boiling hot instead of lukewarm water to the recipe killed all the yeast, leaving me with a flat, flaky mass of unusable dough.
4. Getting quite literally into the dough is a quaint cultural trope. Maurice Sendak's Mickey in the Night Kitchen has a little boy fly naked into a bottle of milk and get baked up in a loaf of bread. In the 1921 film The Bakery, employee Larry almost loses his job after knocking his boss into a giant cake mixer.
5. e.g. My 83-year-old grandfather proudly bakes Betty Crocker lemon bars to give to his retired friends on house calls.
6. RECIPE FOR JIM LAHEY'S NO-KNEAD BREAD; YIELDS A ONE AND HALF POUND LOAF:
Combine 3 cups flour, ‚Ä®¬º teaspoon instant yeast and 1¬º teaspoons salt in an olive oil-greased bowl, then add 1 5/8 cups water and stir until blended. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it sit for a minimum of 12 hours. On a floured work surface, fold the dough once or twice, recover with a towel and let rest 15 minutes. Shape dough into a ball, cover the towel with flour and the dough with the towel and let rise for two hours. It should double in size and be somewhat stiff. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and leave a heavy pot in there to preheat. Place the dough seam-side up in the pot, cover with lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake 15-30 more minutes, until it looks good. That's it.
7. I realize I appear more than a little self-satisfied here, what with the purported monumentality of the accomplishment. Truth be told, I baked a loaf of bread, and it wasn't that hard. You (even outside our deifying thought experiment) can do it too!