A love letter to bread
Like any love story, this one involves a power struggle — between the heart and the hips.
By Leslie Bilderback 09/01/2010
My Be-loav-ed Bread,
I love you. I love the feel of your dough in my hands as I caress you across my countertop, gently coaxing out your elasticity with each tender stroke. I love the smell of my kitchen and the yeast-heavy steam that fogs up my glasses when I open the oven to check on you. I love the sounds you make — the delicate crinkling as you cool on the counter, the salacious ripping of your crust as it ruptures to reveal your inner treasure, the slow, deliberate crunch in my jaw as I savor your essence. And oh, the taste of you. My dearest, when we are apart, I hunger for you.
Affectionately yours (and waiting eagerly in anticipation
of our next encounter),
Yes, despite Deuteronomy’s warning, I could absolutely live on bread alone. Well, technically I would need water too, and probably some orange juice to prevent scurvy. But otherwise, I could totally live on bread, because I adore it.
Also, I hate it.
A contradiction? Perhaps. But I know that my precious bread is actually my enemy. We are engaged in a mano-a-mano duel to the death. You see, simple carbohydrates do not initially satisfy my appetite and thus create a further craving, which in turn leads to overeating. It is not until I am resting supinely on the floor, pants unzipped (Hold your horses! This is not meant to be titillating), in an attempt to alleviate the explosive gaseous thunderhead in my gut, that I think, “I probably shouldn’t have eaten that entire bread basket.” (Note to self: Find a new family motto to replace “More Bread, Please.”)
Speaking of the bread basket, I blame this singular practice for the downfall of society. It is surely some sort of trick. Why else would restaurants give it away for free? Is it some kind of reward for making it to the table in one piece? No! Is it a way to fill us up so that they can put less food on our plates, therefore saving billions of dollars a year? Preposterous!
I do think, however, that the bread basket was concocted as a KGB plot to weigh down the capitalists — literally. In fact, if I am not mistaken, I think the first free bread basket was served at the Russian Tea Room in 1947. (Aha!) Of course, those commie carb-pushers never thought they’d lose the arms race, devalue the ruble and ultimately alienate the Soviet people. Nice try, comrade.
Yes, we are a country stuffed to the gizzard with bread like a turkey at Thanksgiving, but that does not mean we are ready to go totally totalitarian.
Sometimes bread has the upper hand; other times I do. Currently I am winning this affair d’honneur, but I feel certain there will come a day when I say, “To hell with it,” throw in the towel and spend my final hours gorging on croissants, Indian fry bread, sourdough boules and (gasp!) hot naan, like Robert Morley in the final scene of the best movie ever, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (Oh, sorry! I should have said “spoiler alert,” although I don’t think it counts if the movie was made in 1978. Perhaps I should issue myself a get-a-life-and-watch-a-movie-from-this-decade alert.)
I am not the first to express loaf love. The ancient Egyptians were fans too. Bakeries unearthed at Giza date to 2600 B.C., and many grains and loaves have been found in a number of Egyptian tombs, along with drawings of busy bakeries and carvings of people kneading. (Either they’re kneading bread or running an ancient massage parlor, although I doubt that is the kind of imagery they took to the hereafter.)
The process of making bread with naturally occurring yeast is a long one, but I guess when you’re up for building pyramids, you are a patient people. It’s not as if they had a choice. Hatshepsutiri the Baker Girl could hardly take a quick cruise down the Nile for a packet of Fleishmann’s RapidRise. In those days, one had to attract and capture wild yeast (an operation that did not involve hiding in the bushes with a net). Yeast is a microscopic living organism found all around us. Like me, it is attracted to carbohydrates, and it prefers an environment that is warm and moist. When all the conditions are right, the yeast feeds, then produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol in a little process we call fermentation. Production of alcohol is less noticeable in baking than in brewing, but the longer the fermentation, the more a sour-tasting alcohol accumulates. This is the basic principle behind sourdough. (To correct a common misconception: Miner ’49ers, known for their sourdough and gold-prospecting, were not bakers — they were drunks. The starters were guarded diligently so they could drink the alcohol off the top. Now, that’s the kind of ingenuity that makes California great!)
The ancients probably first noticed natural yeast bubbling weirdly on the surface of some mushy fruit. They gathered it up and added it to a vat of fruit juice, which eventually produced wine, or what the ancients called “happy juice.” They tried it in a tea of watery grains and created Pabst Blue Ribbon. Finally, Larry the Luxorian added some of the bubbly mass to a bowl of porridge. It was awful, so he threw it in the fire. But later that night, when the fire died out, he found a loaf of bread among the coals.
Even with the knowledge of starters, brewing and bread making, it took the invention of the microscope for man to realize that yeast was the cause of fermentation, and it wasn’t until the 1860s that the commercial production of yeast began.
Sure, grain has something to do with the lusciousness of bread too, but I am afraid to launch into my Ode to Endosperm, lest I lose the two readers I have left. Suffice to say the entire process of making bread is as magical as Houdini at Disneyland on Christmas Eve.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef, cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine Pasadena. Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.