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I’m Tired of Eating Kleenex

January 30, 2015

Bread. Since man first learned to grind grains between two rocks it has been an important staple in almost every culture on the face of the planet. It is a mainstay of the human diet, the very staff of life. It is so ubiquitous that it has come to represent food in general. In our vernacular, sharing a meal is “breaking bread”.

There is something unquestionably sensual about a thick slab carved off a loaf fresh from the oven and slathered with butter. As cookbook author James Beard put it, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” We slice it for sandwiches and toast. We tear off chunks to use in place of table utensils for scooping up our food. We dip in our soup or mop up our gravy with it. We enjoy it dry as crackers and rusks. We cube it to make stuffing for our Christmas turkey and croutons for our salads and soups, and crumb it to coat fried foods. We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as for snacks. Bread is an appetizer, entrée, and dessert.

In the kitchens of the world bread is made in all manner of shapes—loaves round and rectangular, large and small, both thick and thin, sticks, rings, flat breads, braided breads. It is baked, fried, deep-fried and boiled. Yet despite the innumerable variations, the basic ingredients remain the same: flour, water, salt, and—although there are unleavened breads—in most cases leavening, most commonly yeast.

Bread’s importance is reflected in the traditions of the Abrahamic religions. The Torah commands that the showbread be maintained as an ever-present offering to God. “Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times.” (Exodus 25:30) The unleavened matzo of Jewish Passover commemorates the exodus, symbolizing redemption and freedom, and its simplicity serves as a reminder to be humble. The two Sabbath challah loaves commemorate the double portion of manna that fell the day before the Sabbath, the twelve braids of the two loaves representing the tribes of Israel. In Islam, bread represents the food required to feed the body as well as eternal life. It is considered sacred, never to be wasted or abased.

Bread is integral to Christianity. There are hundreds of references to bread in the Bible, both literal and symbolic. In recognition of our need for divine and human nourishment, in praying the Lord’s Prayer Christians petition God to “give us this day our daily bread”. As we celebrate Communion bread represents the living presence of Jesus. My maternal grandparents were of Ukrainian extraction, and in the Eastern Orthodox tradition paska or kulich, Easter bread, symbolizing the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, is essential to the Paschal table. Bread reminds us of our obligation to alleviate the world’s hungers. When we broke bread in my childhood home we asked the Lord to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

I see bread as reflecting the cycle of life. The grain gives up its life to become flour. The flour feeds the yeast that gives life to the dough. The yeast then gives up its life in the baking of the bread. The bread gives life to us. In our dying we feed the grass that produces the grain.

I have long loved to cook, having gained some measure of repute for my culinary skills since I was a teenager. During my tenure as a volunteer firefighter I spearheaded a fundraiser for the department that centered on the publishing of a cookbook, many of the recipes borrowed from my own collection. As much as I love food, I love preparing it for others even more.

However, my expertise has been concentrated on entrées. I can occasionally whip up a pretty decent dessert, but bread making has somehow eluded my repertoire. I have done some baking over the years—pizza, biscuits and a cake from time to time—but bread…. that was different. There seemed to me to be a mystique around bread making, something akin to wizardry that was a just a slight bit intimidating.

But very recently I resolved the time had come to take the plunge. My motivations were twofold. First, in my opinion, most commercial bread, as Julia Child observed, “tastes like Kleenex.” There are some superb breads out there, but purchasing them necessitates something just short of taking out a mortgage. My second motivation I’ll get to later.

For my first foray into the art and science of making bread I tackled naan bread, common to the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. I enjoy Indian and more so North African cuisine, so naan seemed a good fit. The recipe is simple enough and the flatbread bakes in only four minutes on a blistering hot baking stone.   I prepared the oven and set to work. The fruits of my labour disappeared pretty quickly.

Basking in my initial success, I was ready for something more challenging. I have long appreciated the complex and interesting flavours and chewy structure of sourdough. It’s truly a bread I can sink my teeth into. I scoured the Internet for a recipe that appealed to me. Many offered the now-popular option of using a KitchenAid mixer, but even if I possessed one of those behemoths, I would have shunned it. I am a dyed-in-the-wool purist, adamant in my belief that baking authentic old-fashioned bread requires adherence to traditional ways. I would have been delighted to have had access to a wood-fired cookstove, or even better, a brick oven. I will never forget the smoky goodness of the bread from the clay ovens of Haiti.

Determined to maximize my learning experience, I selected a rather involved and labour-intensive recipe for the mythic bread. First came growing the wild yeast starter, a living thing that is sensitive to the environment and though forgiving, suffers if not tended carefully and fed regularly. That process consumed more than a week. Then came the day and a half evolution of the bread involving creating the sponge, fermentation of the dough, resting for autolysis, proofing, a third rise, an hour of hand kneading, pulling and folding several times over several hours. I further complicated things by opting to use a different baking method for each of the two loaves the recipe yielded.

I was generally pleased with the result. My mistaking wax paper for parchment (which I had never used before) threw a bit of a wrench into things, necessitating some persnickety picking off the welded-on bits of paper from the bottom of the loaves, but my bread was not substantially affected. My bread was a wee bit heavier than I would have liked, but had the sourdough flavour I was shooting for. Not bad for a novice. My daughter, who is an excellent baker, was favourably impressed.

Now to get to my second impetus for donning a baker’s apron, without question my primary one. It revolves around my personal all-time favourite bread—rye. Not just any rye, but Winnipeg rye. It’s different. It is made with white flour with only a little rye flour thrown in, relying on rye meal, coarsely ground rye, for its characteristic flavour.

There has long been heated debate in this city over just which particular Winnipeg rye is the best, but the majority of aficionados would undoubtedly insist that bread from that venerable Winnipeg institution, KUB Bakery, is the crème de la crème.  Their rye was for decades one of my personal food groups.  Its glossy crunchy crust, soft chewy center, rich flavours and heady aroma would instantly have me salivating like a Pavlov dog, strains of Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better wafting through my brain.  Paired with a chunk of kielbasa from Strikers Deli and Meats or some corned beef from Smith’s and a couple of Polski ogórki, it was a little taste of heaven!  But when in 2008 fire consumed KUB’s Stella Avenue plant, it was as if the recipe was lost in the flames.  To my taste buds, KUB rye bread was no longer quite the same—still good, but not the “original”.

I have always been solidly convinced that if someone else can do something, then I probably can as well. My four years of 4-H membership deeply carved the club’s motto, “Learn to do by doing” into my psyche, and having very frequently put its wisdom to practical use over the years, I was determined to do so again. I set out to recreate my “one and only” by trial and error. Armed with a couple of recipes published in the Winnipeg Free Press a few months after the KUB fire, I prepared to take my first stab at making rye bread. I combined elements of both recipes and went in search of the ingredients. Unable to find liquid barley malt in anywhere near the modest quantity called for, I ended up purchasing a tub from a brew shop that will last me for many years of bread making. Rye flour was readily available, but rye berries, cracked or whole, were a different story. After considerable searching, I was almost ready to order some online, interestingly from Fieldstone Granary in Armstrong, BC, where I lived before leaving for Haiti. Then someone suggested the good folks at Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company in the city’s “Granola Belt” who were kind enough to sell me a pound for a paltry sum.

Making this bread was so much easier than making sourdough; a couple of hours and I was done, everything washed up and the kitchen cleaned. Right out of the oven the loaves had the look I was going for. The crust was glossy and crunchy, and the bread was soft yet chewy with gritty little bits of rye. It was very tasty, definitely better than any of the commercial rye breads. However, it lacked the acidic hint that I savour. Immediately I jotted down a couple of modifications to the recipe that I will try at my next baking, which will be soon. One of the loaves was virtually inhaled and the second accompanied me to dinner with friends.

It is still a couple of months until Easter, so I will put trying paska on the back burner for a while. Challa is definitely on my list, as well as tortilla, although that flatbread looks very simple to make. I am not overly enthused about making white bread, but I very much enjoy raisin bread toast, so will probably give that a try.

The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry; the coat that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.

– Basil of Caesarea



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