Cooking, Food and Drink

Friday Food and Drink Post: What’s Bread in the Bone …

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!–The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

I love bread. Over the years I’ve tried a great many sorts and a great many methods of baking my own. My two ‘go to’ books on the subject are Bread Alone, by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik, and The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott (at one time, there was bad blood between the two “sides” of this equation; I don’t know if that’s still the case. But perhaps it demonstrates the truth of the maxim I stole for the title of the post–“what’s bred in the bone comes out in the blood.” Bread, if you’re really serious about making it the right way, is, apparently, a hill worth dying on. I’m not sure I’d go that far. But others have.)

The first mentioned book is a true cookbook, and covers many different bread-making styles, with an emphasis on organic ingredients, and a slowed down process during which it may take days to acquire wild yeasts from the air, or for the very small amounts of added commercial yeast to develop. Sourdough is covered in detail (another slow process, just making your own starter). All I can say is that the results are often worth the wait. (I’ve had a few disasters and ended up with a few doorstops. Some of them (when I can get the knife through them) make excellent croutons. Some of them (when they’re basically the same specific gravity as concrete) get thrown out in the field for the crows to peck at. For months.)

The second book is more of a fascinating trip through the history and construction of masonry ovens, and includes plans to build one’s own. That’s long been a dream of mine, and it may remain so, although there are now prefab ovens for sale (at a very steep price), so who knows? Perhaps I’ll indulge myself one day. Until then, I have a large baking stone that I’ve had for fifty years, and which lives in the oven at all times. That, and a spray bottle of water, to produce a burst of steam, will have to do for the time being, and most of the time it does very well. (Full disclosure: Yes, I have a bread machine. It makes an indifferent loaf of white bread, breaking all the rules espoused in Bread Alone, but it’s my secret weapon when I ‘knead’ to whip up some pizza dough without any fuss.)

Committing to bread is not for the faint of heart. There’s a chemistry-course full of knowledge in Bread Alone, from a discussion of the types of flours, different grains, hard and soft, protein-rich and not; differences between tap water, well water and spring water, and which one is best; the effects of too-slow, and too-fast, changes in temperature on the dough; what role humidity plays in success or failure, high-gluten flour, low-gluten flour, and what that means, and on and on. It’s a miracle all those funny-looking, European peasant, old-lady types ever got it right. But they did. Of course, their options were circumscribed, and they learned to make the most of the limited ones they had. A plethora of choice isn’t always a good thing, and I think Bread Alone is really a book about limiting such choice to what’s most important.

The best fresh bread I’ve ever eaten came from our friend Marietta’s kitchen in Prince Edward Island in the early 1970s. She and Tommy were an elderly couple who lived in a 19th century farmhouse (water pump, and wood-burning stove in the kitchen). Such delicious bread. Such kind people. Just lovely.

Last week, though, I took myself to lunch at a local (and fairly decent) restaurant. I ordered, and they brought out the bread. Honestly, I could have eaten three or four baskets full of it, and just skipped the salad and entrée. Not the dessert. The dessert (locally made gelato) was sublime.

The bread was crusty but flaky on the outside, and tender but well developed on the inside. It was a hot Italian. (The waiter wasn’t so bad, either.) A memorable meal.

Tell me about your favorite breads, please. And if you’re a connoisseur, please share your favorite tips.

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