What, no raisin bread?

Cinnamon-raisin bread. Not mine, however.I have a large – and growing – stack of books about bread. So many that I’m running out of shelf space for them all. Some are for artisan bread, some for regular homemade bread (traditional recipes, usually with lots of kneading), others are for bread machines. A couple are generic “all-about-breads-of-the-world” books with recipes.

Yet only one of 15 has a recipe for making the basic raisin-cinnamon bread. This is a loaf I want to make in the bread machine on the timer, so next weekend we’d awake to fresh raisin bread, ready to toast.

There are all sorts of variations in the books; all sorts of recipes with either raisins or cinnamon, and a few with both. I have recipes for raisin sourdough, raisin rye, Chelsea buns, frosted raisin loaf cake, fruit and spice loaf, cinnamon buns, Greek Xmas bread, Greek Easter bread, hot cross buns, panettone, sticky buns, maritimer’s bread, stollen, ginger and raisin whirls, Polish babka, rum and raisin loaf, schiacciate con uva, cinnamon bagels, christopsomos, focaccia, lambrospomo,walnut-cinnamon bread, cinnamon raisin roll, cinnamon and cranberry bread, and others.

None of which is what I want, and on top of that, they’re all arranged for oven baking, not bread machine.

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A Tale of Two Loaves

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014
Fresh from the machine and from the oven

An interesting experiment this week: using the same basic set of ingredients to make bread, but one made by hand, the other in the bread machine, both made the same day.

I’ve been curious about this ever since I got the machine. Would the two methods create similar breads if I used roughly the same ingredients? I say roughly because I used a bread machine recipe found in a book, including all of the ingredients listed (substituting a small amount of honey for the sugar listed, and avocado oil for generic vegetable oil.)

In the handmade loaf, however, I included no additional honey or oil, because my tried-and-true recipe didn’t call for them.

In both, I substituted roughly 50g of water called for in the recipe for 50g of buttermilk.

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014
Ends sliced for comparison

Or would the loaves be very different? As you can see by the photographs, the height is clearly greater in the left (bread machine) loaf. A difference was expected, but the amount surprised me. The bread machine loaf was also less symmetrical than the handmade loaf. That’s just an aesthetic thing, but I like the symmetry.

I think I know the reason – or rather reasons – for that height difference (more below).

The bread machine loaf is almost too tall for everyday use. It doesn’t fit comfortably into the toaster – about 1.5 inches (38mm) sticking out. That means turning the slice half-way through the toasting. A bit of a pain.

The flour was in the same proportions, although quantities varied slightly. The bread machine recipe was listed in volumetric measurements (cups of flour), while the handmade recipe used weights. The mix of flours was approximately one third whole wheat to two thirds unbleached white. It’s not possible to match the two measurements exactly because a cup of flour weighs different amounts depending on whether it’s fluffed or sifted, its humidity and your own personal measuring technique.

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The last loaves of 2013

Pumpkin cranberry loafAs my stock of bread dwindles, I’m contemplating what breads to bake this weekend, as well as what I may want to try before the New Year. I’m also pondering my baking successes and failures these past few months. Mostly successes, although a few have been “qualified” successes – edible but not optimal.

First my levain – sourdough – mix got dumped last week. It went off and really stank. Unpleasant. I suspected it was struggling for a couple of weeks, ever since I tried – and failed – to make a decent sourdough bread with it as a starter. They rose only minimally, even when left overnight, and baked into bricks with uncooked centres.

The starter didn’t respond well to feedings any more, either. A crust formed over it and I knew it was dying. Very disappointing, but we motor on.

I have to try to make a starter again, this time I will begin with pineapple juice rather than water, to ensure a lower pH (more acidity), which will discourage some of the more competitive bacteria. I had used some in my first batch, but later, not from the start.

Black & Decker bread machineSecond my bread machine. I bought one recently on sale at Canadian Tire – a Black & Decker B6000C that advertises it makes 1.5,2 and 3 pound loaves. (What ever happened to metric? Isn’t Canada supposed to use metric?)

All of the recipes in its book have volumetric measurements, and I’m using weight measurements for everything else to have greater consistency, so I didn’t try anything until I found an interesting pumpkin-cranberry bread machine loaf online. That’s when I finally unpacked it.

The machine started grumpily and hesitantly, a bit like I am some mornings after a rough, sleepless night. It didn’t want to knead the bread, and after a few dis-spirited grunts that suggested it was having a difficult time with the paddles and the dough consistency, it simply sat there. The ingredients unmixed.

After an hour of fretting and waiting while it did nothing, I reset it, roughly mixed the dough by hand, and started again. This time it worked, the paddles paddled, and the cycle completed without any problems that I could find.

The bread that resulted was – well, okay. Nothing spectacular.  Although rather yellowy-orange looking, the pumpkin flavour is very subdued, the cranberries too few to really influence the taste.* I also used buttermilk and molasses instead of water and honey, so I set myself up with this loaf right from the start. It’s edible and not bad toasted, but hardly what I expected. The texture and crust were fine so I’m eating my way through it.

I’m also unsure if the recipes in the machine’s instruction book are designed for American or Canadian flours. I’ve read comments online that recipes need to be altered when using Canadian flour in many of these recipe. Again, one of those things that requires some testing.

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Salt and bread making

Salt is one of the four essential ingredients in making bread, along with flour, yeast and water. Nothing more is needed, although often a lot more is added.

Salt is listed in all the recipes. Only one bread I’ve ever read about is salt-free (a Tuscan specialty mentioned in William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves).

We tend to assume salt is simply for flavour, but it is also part of our basic biology:

I find it easiest to think of salt as one half of the body’s water-regulation system, the other half being potassium. The membranes of every cell in the body allow water to flow through in direct proportion to how much sodium and potassium are present in the immediate area. Too much or too little sodium in the body affects everything from digestion to blood pressure to brain function.

Since proper sodium levels are so important, the body uses the kidneys to maintain a precise balance. The system is very efficient, which means that if you eat more sodium than the recommended daily allowance, you’ll simply excrete whatever you don’t need (within reason). That also means that we tend to crave more salt than we actually need to eat, which might explain its flavor-enhancing properties.

Salt, as the site above tells us, suppresses bitter flavours, which means some foods taste better salted (at least in my cultural background, which favours sweet and salty over sour and bitter). Because it suppresses bitter, which in turn suppresses  sweet and sour flavours, these flavours come across as stronger in the presence of salt.

Which suggests that a bread with a sweet factor – say raisins, coconut or cranberries – can have a higher salt content than a plain bread, because the salt will enhance the sweetness. So less sugar, more salt? (Okay, I don’t cook with processed sugar because I try to avoid it in my diet…)

Read this food science piece in Nature about salt, food and flavour. Very interesting.

Taste and flavour are not quite synonymous, as the National Institute of Health reminds us:

Taste and flavor are terms that are often confused. The word “taste” has two meanings, one technical and the other as commonly used in the English language, which encompasses the larger concept of flavor…

The sense of taste, one of the five major senses, is defined based on anatomy. In mammals, it is the sense subserved by taste receptor cells located primarily on taste buds in the oral cavity. These taste receptor cells are innervated by branches of the seventh, ninth, and tenth cranial nerves that synapse first in the brainstem prior to sending messages to other parts of the brain…

Virtually all foods and beverages impart sensations in addition to taste. For example, a complex food such as soup not only has taste properties (e.g., it is salty, sour, or sweet) but also has volatile compounds that give it its specific identity (e.g., pea soup compared to potato soup), and it may also have burning properties, such as those caused by hot peppers… In common parlance, the entire sensation elicited by this food is called its “taste.” However, most scientists would instead use the term “flavor” to refer to this total sensation, and that is how it will be used here. It should be noted that many also include the texture of a food as a component of flavor. Taste molecules such as salt can influence flavor in many ways, some of which are described below.

Of course, salt plays other roles in the baking, fermenting and gluten development stages. According to the Wild Yeast blog:

  • Salt affects dough texture, making it stronger and less sticky, as the commenter noticed.
  • Salt reduces oxidation of the dough during mixing. Oxidation causes the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour that contribute to flavor and crumb color.
  • Salt regulates yeast activity, causing fermentation to progress at a more consistent rate.
  • Salt affects shelf life. Because it attracts water, it can help keep bread from staling too quickly in a dry environment. However, in a humid environment, it can make the crust soggier.

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How hot is your oven?

Oven thermometerSeems like a silly question: the answer would be it’s as hot as I set it to be. Isn’t it? Well, no, it may actually be rather different from what you expect, based on my recent tests.

I was reading on several bread-baking forums about oven temperatures and the effects on baking. Specifically on the crust: higher temperatures (450F and up) lead to crunchy crusts as the sugars caramelize rapidly. Then there’s “non-enzymatic browning:” the Maillard reaction that happens at a range of temperatures:

The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors… In the process, hundreds of different flavor compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavor compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. It is these same compounds flavor scientists have used over the years to make reaction flavors.

The Maillard reaction is what makes bread become toast. Caramelization is different, as Wikipedia also tells us:

Caramelization is an entirely different process from Maillard browning, though the results of the two processes are sometimes similar to the naked eye (and tastebuds). Caramelization may sometimes cause browning in the same foods in which the Maillard reaction occurs, but the two processes are distinct. They both are promoted by heating, but the Maillard reaction involves amino acids… whereas caramelization is simply the pyrolysis of certain sugars.

The following things are a result of the Maillard browning reaction:
Caramel made from milk and sugar, especially in candies: Milk is high in protein (amino acids), and browning of food involving this complex ingredient would most likely include Maillard reactions.
Chocolate and maple syrup
Lightly roasted peanuts

When cooking, the Maillard reaction can be achieved at lower temperatures (for example, when using the sous-vide method or when searing meats) by increasing the pH of the item being cooked. The most common method for accomplishing this is by using baking soda as a catalyst to facilitate the reaction.

Some complex chemistry going on there (which is one of the reasons bread making intrigues me: it’s science in the kitchen!).

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Art, Science & Baking

French loaf showing crumb
You gotta love breadmaking. It’s an opportunity to get the right and left hemispheres of the brain working together, not racing about in different directions like they do most times. The logical and the creative sides working in lockstep.

Bread making combines the logic of science with the freedom of expression in art. Well, that’s really true of all cooking, but it seems more evident in baking. You get your hands into the mix, with bread. It’s a visceral thing to do. Like pottery.

Breadmaking combines four sciences, too: physics, chemistry, biology and botany. They all come into play when baking. And, as I’ve said earlier, you also get a bit of animal husbandry in it – yeast is a domesticated animal you need to nourish, tend and encourage.

And then there’s the math: I’ve been working on my bakers’ percentages in the most recent recipes, trying to understand the various levels of hydration and relative amounts of ingredients.

Plus it takes creative skill: the ability to “read” the ingredients, the dough, the ambient room conditions for rising and fermenting.  You need to feel the dough, to test it, assess its condition by fell, sight and scent. Knowing how much salt is “just right.”

And, of course, it’s a distraction from the woes and cares of daily life, from the chitter chatter of politics and the media. Baking bread requires concentration, focus. It’s a very Buddhist thing to do. It clears the mind.

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Ah, Hubris…

Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. Hubris is worse.
Percy: What could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

Two loavesYou think you know it all, and so you try to show off your talents. That’s when hubris makes you fall. So today, with company for the weekend, in between chess games, ukulele songs and great conversation, I produced the dough I’d been cold-fermenting in the fridge since Sunday.  Should be just about perfect. Time to show off my new breadmaking skills.


Bread requires attention; patience, awareness. Like meditation, like writing.

It’s not something you should do while nattering, while showing one another Youtube videos, while trying to show another person a new song arrangement.

Whole wheatMind half on other things, I shaped the cold dough, put one mix in a ceramic pot, the other in a bread pan to warm up. Let them rise while I carried on. Clearly not quite long enough or warm enough. But I wasn’t really watching. Was the dough high enough? Awake enough? Our house is cool, so dough doesn’t rise very rapidly.

Should have warmed the pot first, but no… and forgot the lame; forgot to score the tops. Bakers shouldn’t be so distracted. Too many things to do, too many rituals to follow.

Then I baked them together at 450 for… ? Yipes. I forgot to record the time. Was it 30 minutes? 35? Best guess… look at the tops. Seem done…

Took the lid off the pot a little late, too. That might have kept the steam inside a little too long the kamut bread.

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Doing it by the numbers

Bakers' percentageThe first thing I learned – well, not the first but up there, for sure – is that volume measurements are for amateurs. Being an amateur (and expecting to be there for some time yet), I took it on the chin when asking typical neophyte questions about recipes and ingredients.

Might as well have hung a sign around my posts shouting “newbie!” Well, they were gentle with me, but strict. Tough love among bakers.

Good bakers use weights, not volume, they told me in no uncertain terms. No more cups of flour: grams of flour, instead. Good thing I bought a kitchen scale a while back.

Pro bakers throw percentages into the mix and talk offhand about hydration levels and quote recipes like 60-2 bread, or 80-2-2.5. Ouch. That sound is my head exploding.

This makes baking like an exercise in advanced math, you know that class that caused your head to ache in high school? Yeah, like that. Not convinced? Watch this video (I have, a few times):

Got that? Good, there’ll be a test later… (here’s some more study material and part two is here…). And that’s what the real bakers use.

But, you argue, my mother (or father) always used volume and her (his) bread always turned out okay. Well, it’s still okay to use them, but it’s a by-guess-and-by-golly method and you can never be quite sure what you baked with that recipe last time will turn out the same the next.

Like imperial measurements lack the crispness of metric, volume lacks the precision of weight. The pros use weight. And percentages. And if I want to talk with the big kids, I need to be able to speak their language. My baker’s textbook is, by the way, on a UPS truck as I write this.

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Road Trip to K2

K2 MillNo, not to the mountain. To the mill. The flour mill in Beeton, a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of me. We took a little road trip today in my never-ending quest for baking ingredients. Susan came along, showing remarkable tolerance for my obsession.

K2 is a modest, old-fashioned place that grinds flour – the only mill still operating in the county, as far as I have been able to tell. And one of the rare artisanal mills at all in Ontario.

And of course it sells its products, as well as some other items like maple syrup, hemp products, local photographer’s cards and some gift items.

K2 also hosts a bread market and is open Mon. – Fri. 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. The mill’s Blogspot site says it sells millet, oats, barley, spelt, buckwheat, durham, corn, Red Fife and “Osprey” (A local, hard spring wheat).  Plus some malted barley (I went in great hope to get the latter, since I want to work with diastatic malt in my breadmaking).

The New Tec Times tells us:

The building is old, dating back to the 1870s, and adds a rustic charm suitable for a business that sells its products on site.

The mill is a new business in town having started operations in December of 2012.

Proprietor Mark Hayhoe is a third generation miller…

“It’s a village mill. A lot of the people who supply grain here, live around here.” Mark explained. “It’s kind of de-industrialized milling. The style of milling we do is an older technology where you are basically milling it once.”

In addition to selling flour, bread, and other products to the public, they host a farmers market on the property every Saturday.

In an interview in Specialty Ontario, Hayhoe said:

k2M is artisanal due to it’s size and nature of milling. We are able to produce ultrafine whole grain flour in a single pass from grain that is grown local to the mill. The broad capability of milling many different grains, on their own or as an assemblage, is another unique feature of our mill… Cold milling is the process of milling grain in a minimalist manner (single grind) while keeping the temperature low to preserve life and vitality of the flour… Our grains are mainly sourced from local farms.

K2’s grains have also been used to produce Ontario’s first organic grain spirit:

Mark is able to mill the wheat while preserving the components of the whole grain.

It also has its own Facebook page.

The mill was out of malt, but the owner, Mark, went to the mill and brought out a small bag of malted barley grains, which he ground for me, no charge. It’s enough to get me started, next week.

The breads they offer are also made locally, at the 100 Acre Bakery. Although the temptation was to buy at least one of everything, I purchased only a single sourdough boule. Susan got a bag of cinnamon buns.  I might make a trip to the bakery next, to see if the owners will talk to me about sourdough.

I also got 10lbs of the Osprey and 10 lbs of the Red Fife flours. I should make a trip there one day when they’re milling the flour, so see it in action. When I run out of flour, or course… which may not happen for a few more weeks, what this new lot and some already on hand – about 35-40 lbs in the cupboards. Maybe I should start giving loaves away as gifts…
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I’m struggling with this…

Recent bread loafMy recent passion for bread and baking has caused a bit of an internal upset. Not the baking thereof, but rather the writing about it. I’m doing a lot of that, recently. Writing (and, yes, baking too). And of course it comes with the attendant research into bread’s history, the combing through websites for recipes and book reviews, the hunt for equipment and the discussions about yeasts, pH balance, sourdough starters, Canadian versus American flours, protein contents, vintage and ancient grains… gawds, I’m having fun.

And it is, if you don’t mind some hyperbole, damn tasty fun.

It’s both culinary and hands-on science, with a bushel of history tossed into the mix. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the ukulele, back in 2008.

I suppose everyone needs new challenges, new horizons, new mountains to conquer. Bread – well, so far artisan, rustic bread – is my latest Everest.  Which is a bit synchronistic, because sourdough is often described as the “Everest of breads” and sourdough is one of my next projects. Enroute to that pinnacle, I have a lot to learn. But sourdough is on the horizon for this winter.

It’s a bit of a throwback for me because I was baking bread 25-30 years ago with all the earnestness of a wannabe chef. My notes from classes at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts date to the mid-1970s. I was making bread (albeit mostly in bread machines by 1988) into the late 1980s. I stopped after we moved here. Now I’ve started again.

BouleThanks to both a spate of new books on breadmaking and the internet, I can now re-indulge that interest and share the experiences of others, as well as their recipes. It’s an obsession, I admit, but a creative one.

I am pondering starting a whole new WordPress blog zone for my baking and research about bread. One amateur to another, it would be. Here’s me flailing around with recipe after recipe, tweaking, tinkering and photographing. And about the historical impact and implications of bread, as I have recently posted (on the impact of ergot and witchcraft via bread). My naked tweets would be – unlike Anthony Wiener’s – about my bread results.

Bread blogging is actually been and being done successfully on other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (highly recommended if you’re into bread baking, by the way). But I am reluctant to create my own blog zone on their site (if for nothing more than I want to be able to create recipes in my preferred format and style, which is possible through WP plug-ins). Besides, there have a lot more accomplished people there, and my efforts would seem presumptuous.

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Bread, Madness and Christianity

St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?

Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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Bread Tales, Continued

Artisan BreadThis week I started a small batch of dough to bake later in the week, or on the weekend while I figure out a few details on my baking odyssey (and do some online research on a number of related issues). Probably just a small loaf  this time, and I’ll likely do it in a pan. I plan to start a larger batch of dough, Sunday with the goal of a longer-term cold fermentation. And possibly a sourdough starter.

The last loaf I made, a mere three days ago, is almost gone.  Funny how homemade bread gets eaten so quickly.

I baked it in the inside ceramic bowl from a crock pot (result pictured below). The loaf was big and tasty, good consistency for sandwiches and toast, with a great crust. But not perfect.

The bottom 1/4 inch was not as fully cooked as the rest – not doughy or raw, just a trifle under-cooked compared to the top. After a day in the fridge, it was barely noticeable.

I had also mixed a little margarine into the dough before the rising. Not really sure what difference that makes, so I left it out for the subsequent batch.

I think I should have divided the dough into two parts rather than try for one big loaf. I’ll know better next time.

In the interim, I’ve been busy reading Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, trying to figure out what I’m doing to bread that isn’t what they do. The pictures in the book make my mouth water, but the results confound my abilities.

Basically I want simple, chewy, tasty loaves. I have the style exactly in mind – our friend Bill brings us “rustic” loaves from a Guelph baker that match my ideal bread. I’ve not found anything locally – even at the farmers’ market – that matches them.

I just haven’t managed to replicate it myself. Not that my efforts have been bad, just not what I have in my mind as my ideal loaf.

I have the crust and the taste working for me (although the crust is chewy, it’s not quite as crunchy – perhaps I need more steam during the baking), but the inside – the “crumb”  – isn’t what I want. It’s good bread, very edible, but has a texture more like commercial sourdough bread than the artisan breads I’m aiming for. Still, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve managed after two decades or more of not baking. Besides, I’m having fun and learning a lot.

Back to the book. One reviewer wrote:

The basic idea behind these books is to be able to have wonderful, bakery quality bread in your own home and on demand. You whip up a “master batch” of dough that has enough water in it so the molecules in the bread can do their thing and you don’t have to knead the bread. This master batch stays in your refrigerator, covered loosely, for up to two weeks. When you want a fresh loaf, you just cut a piece of the dough from the master batch, form the loaf, let it rise on the counter and bake. Easy peasy. I can tell you, I was skeptical.

Well, turns out, these books are everything they claim to be. Sort of little bread miracle guide books.

If you don’t know this book, it’s the most-talked-about bread book on all the baking/cooking sites and blogs. Mine arrived two days ago, so I’m not too far into it and still working on recipe numero uno and the basics they discuss up front. It starts with simple recipes, and progresses. With some luck, I’ll be able to bake in parallel with their recipes.

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The New Art of the Old: Baking Artisan Bread

bread rising Oct 14So far, my re-entry into the world of baking bread has gone fairly well. I started rather hesitantly, unsure of the results, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the flavour, texture and quality so far. Yesterday I baked my latest loaf, as well as started a larger batch for baking in a few days.

I have not ventured into any of the challenging or regional breads, but will do so once I am confident in making this simple artisan-style bread.

I began with a simple recipe and technique from the Bread Experience blog.  I had scoured the web for recipes and found way too many to absorb. As a novice, I wanted something quick and easy, but also small. I anticipated tossing my first efforts into the compost, so I didn’t want to waste ingredients. The recipe here came with illustrations and a well-written description that made it look like a good place to start.

Bread baked Oct 14The recipe is adapted from the book that seems to have revolutionized home baking: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I haven’t read it, but almost every bread baking site and blog I visit refers to it in glowing terms. I have in my basket on Amazon. I didn’t want to invest into books yet until I had some feel for the basics.

The blog lists four simple, natural ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/2 tablespoon Kosher salt
  • 1 – 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

You should also have either cornmeal or parchment paper to keep the bread from sticking to whatever surface you bake on. I chose the Robin Hood all-purpose flour marked “best for bread” on the package. I used the basic dry Fleishmann yeast, poured into the mix right from the package, as the recipe suggests. And also parchment paper.

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Bread the Old-Fashioned Way

Bread step 1...For all the reading, the reviewing and the researching for the best bread maker these past few days, it’s somewhat ironic that instead I turned back to the old-fashioned method and made a couple of loaves by hand, this morning.

Not perfect – I haven’t made bread these past twenty-odd years, and have forgotten the techniques and the tricks I knew back then. More time was needed for the rising, but I grew impatient, and unsure about the timing. Into the oven too soon.

But they are tasty nonetheless. Chewy, rich and delicious, especially warm. And reasonably light, but with a wonderfully leathery crust.

The smell of baking bread wafting up the stairs was enough to get Susan out of bed to come and enjoy a buttered slice with her morning tea. Dogs gathered around, sniffing for crumbs. It seemed like a moment out of some other, homier, domestic world. We talked about her aunt, who baked bread every day, in her small rural English village.

We have a different culture here in Canada (and the USA): convenience. Bakeries have for decades been almost a curiosity, an affectation, or an ethnic thing. They weren’t common in the suburbs, with its population of supermarkets and strip malls.

That may be changing – even big supermarket chains now offer in-store baked bread, buns, muffins, etc. But for the most part, they aren’t as good, at least in my experience, as those small bakery products.

Better, of course, that the majority of pre-packaged, sliced breads we casually buy: the loaves of replicated perfection and uniformity we put in the grocery cart week after week. Not always the healthiest choice, of course, but even these have getting better:

As recently as 15 years ago, 80 percent of bread sold in the U.S. was white bread.(1) Today, it’s a much different story. We’re buying more whole grain bread and less white, and in 2010, for the first time, sales of whole wheat bread surpassed that of white bread—$2.6 billion compared with $2.5 billion.(2) Thanks to education, availability, and improved labeling (like stamps and logos indicating healthier products), whole grains have become a top priority with consumers.

Bread step 2...Don’t be fooled: many in-store breads aren’t really artisan. They come frozen, pre-mixed and read to shove into the oven. Like a fast food oputlet, where the “fresh” food arrives frozen and pre-cooked, merely heated in store.

Well, the bread dough still needs to be cooked, but the recipes are fixed, immutable and almost as perfect as the packaged stuff. The employees don’t do much more than feed the oven, then stuff the results into the appropriate bags.

However, I like it better than 95% of all packaged breads (Rudolph’s and Dimpflmeier’s breads are an exception…), but I don’t have the same attachment to these pseudo-artisan breads as I do those from a real bakery. They seem less authentic, but so do most big-store items.*

To be fair, some of the breads offered in stores are brought in from real bakeries (usually outside the region), places like Ace Bakeries. And some of these are great products, worth the $3-$4-$5-and-up a loaf. Some are pale imitations, overpriced and mediocre. It’s hit-and-miss (and I’ve tried many).

I’m of an age when I can remember the breadman and the milkman delivering door-to-door. That’s long gone. I don’t remember the breads, but I remember the milk bottles, with their funny necks that held the cream when it rose, so it could be poured off. The Fifties. So long ago. Back then, spongy, tasteless white bread was the pinnacle of modernity. Crusts were tossed into the trash. The miracles of science translated into the domestic life.

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