Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Daily Bread

As I transcribe this recipe the day before American Thanksgiving, I ask myself if baking bread at home is in and of itself an ecologically sound practice--since this series of recipes is all about offering people ideas for ways to cook to save the planet.  And, on the whole, it seems to me, home baking is, in general, good for the planet--though I'm far from a purist about this, and we often buy bread from a bakery near us that we particularly like.

For one thing, home baking eliminates many of the wasteful (and ecologically harmful) steps in the process by which bread is baked commercially and then marketed.  Those often include wrapping and shipping the bread, steps that use materials (paper and/or plastic for the wrapping, fuel for the shipping and to heat, cool, light the store selling the bread) over and above those used in the baking itself.

I'm also convinced that the more often we manage to make our own food from scratch, the more inclined we are to understand what goes into healthy meals, and the less inclined we are to want or accept the kind of additives (in the case of bread, preservatives and extenders to soften the crumb of the baked bread) commonly dumped into processed and store-bought foods.  Baking bread at home has the surplus value of making us aware of how much goes into many of the processed foods we buy, which is dubious and even harmful.  Because bread is the staff of life, home baking that aims at a pure, tasty, unfussy end product sensitizes us to the need to be ecologically aware in all of our consumption patterns--and alerts us to how easy this actually is, once we get the hang of doing for ourselves.

For years now, I've used a recipe for what I call "daily bread" that adapts a template from Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).  As David explains, the increase in commercial production of bread in the 19th century undermined centuries of folk wisdom about the best way to bake good, healthy bread at home.  It did so by speeding up the baking process so that more loaves could be produced more quickly.  Additional yeast began to be used to raise dough as quickly as possible, and the long, slow initial rising of a sponge went by the wayside--and, along with it, the increased flavor of bread that has risen slowly, with a minimum of yeast, developing flavor in the process.

The end result in England and North America was a spongy, soft commercially produced loaf that relied on dough extenders to soften the crumb, had little flavor, and often introduced sugar or other sweeteners and milk, so that the dough would rise even more quickly and be softer.  David's technique seeks to return to the roots of English bread-baking by employing an initial overnight sponge step (though the recipe I'm offering below doesn't use a sponge proper; rather, it uses a minimum of yeast to let the dough rise for hours overnight), and by permitting the bread to rise three times before it's finally baked--in this way, increasing its flavor.  David also eschews the 19th-century addition of sugar and milk to daily bread, and returns to the minimal--and healthy and flavorful--pattern of making bread with flour, salt, water, and yeast alone.

And here's the recipe I've come up with as I experiment with David's suggestions for my own home kitchen:

The night before you intend to bake bread weigh 40 ounces of flour (white, whole wheat, or a mix of both), and, if the weather is not particularly warm, heat the flour in a heat-proof bowl at 350 F for 5 minutes.  As you do this, heat 8 ounces of water (1 cup) to blood heat and add 1 rounded teaspoon of yeast to it.  Stir the yeast into the water until it has softened.  In an additional 16 ounces (2 cups) of water heated to blood heat, dissolve 2 scant tablespoons of salt.

If you have heated the flour, remove it from the oven.  Make a well in the flour, and pour in the yeast liquid and then the water with the salt.  Beat these together well, drawing in some of the surrounding flour as you do so.  With your hands or a broad spatula, now mix all of the flour into all of the water until the sponge is well-mixed.  Add a bit more flour if needed.  The final product should hold together as a ball of dough, but should be neither excessively sticky, nor at the same time so dry that bits of flour refuse to adhere to the mass.

Form the dough into a ball, butter the top, and cover the bowl with a clean cloth and/or plastic wrap, leaving it in a warm (but not too warm) place to rise overnight, for 8 hours.  Because we have a gas oven with a pilot light, I put the dough into the oven as I go to bed, propping the door open so that it doesn't become too warm overnight.

In the morning, punch down the risen dough and turn it onto a floured pastry cloth or counter top to knead.  Knead thoroughly and then set to rise again, covered, in a warm place, until the dough doubles.  Punch down and form two loaves.  Place these on baking sheets or in baking pans and cover; set in warm place to rise until nearly double.  Preheat oven to 450 F.  Bake for 15 minutes at 450, then lower the oven to 350 F.  When the bread is brown on top, remove the loaves from their baking pans (if you use baking pans) and bake 10 minutes more.

Because we like crusty bread, I seldom form the dough into loaf-shape, and I seldom use a baking pan.  Instead, I form round balls and place them on cookie sheets, then I incise a cross in the top.  The hot oven with which one begins in David's recipe, which cools somewhat as the baking proceeds, simulates traditional brick-lined bread ovens in which the bricks initially retain the heat of the fires lit in them to begin the baking process, and then slowly cool down as the baking proceeds.  The blast of heat at the early stage of baking helps seal the crumb and develop a browner crust.

David makes a strong case for use of the traditional low-gluten, soft winter wheat in bread-baking.  As she points out, this variety of wheat was long the standard variety used for flour milling in England, and it produces bread with a particularly good flavor, especially when the dough is allowed to mature slowly before baking.

At some point in recent years, in the U.S., the notion has developed that high-gluten flour produced from "hard" varieties of wheat yield tastier and more nutritious bread.  Though I grew up with the softer flour that results from winter wheat--since this is the type of wheat grown traditionally in the American South--I myself had gone over to the "Northern" school of thought until noted food historian Karen Hess convinced me to reconsider, in a series of letters in the 1980s.  

As she pointed out, all the traditional Southern breads, whether yeast-raised or quick breads, about which we read in historic Southern cookbooks, assume--as do their English predecessors--that the flour we'll be using in baking them is from the softer variety of wheat.  And, in her view, what these breads lack by way of gluten, they make up for with the added flavor of the soft wheat.  Hence the interest of food historians and culinary gurus in the many kinds of breads historically served on Southern tables, though admittedly these are usually hot quick breads and the South does not have the strong tradition of outstanding yeast baking found in other parts of the country, particularly where German and Eastern European immigrants are numerous.

Try for yourself, and see what you think--that is, if you live in places where you can get varieties of flour like White Lily and Martha White in addition to the usual brands made with harder varieties of wheat.  And no matter what brand you use, you may want to check the label and see if you're even buying real wheat flour.  Many brands now add milled malted barley to what they market as "wheat" flour.

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