The Color of Bread (recipe at end)

June 8, 2011 § 4 Comments

As everybody knows, white bread is refined, luxurious, desirable stuff, light, elastic and airy, the only proper bread for a good hotel table, the elegance of slender, crisp baguettes and delicate Neapolitan pizza, of cucumber sandwiches and tea, while brown bread is grim leaden nutriment suitable for poverty and war.

As everybody knows, white bread is junk, devoid of value, a worthless surface for underprivileged children to spread jarred mayonnaise on, while brown bread is honest and flavorful, full of fiber and vitamins, is decorated generously with birdseed, and costs six dollars a loaf at Whole Foods.

It didn't occur to me to photograph it for this post until I'd already eaten a third.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could make French bread?” he wondered last week, tearing into my first deformed attempt at a basic baguette.

“What makes it French, exactly?”

We were stumped. But then I remembered in Hanoi, having breakfast at a wobbly formica table at the top floor of our small hotel, the windows so grimy and streaked they must have been plastic, bright and warm, overlooking the rooftops of the capital, each mounted by its hot water heater like a parasitic pod.

The omelets came, hot, quick and cheesy, and each was accompanied by a puffed loaf the size of a gridiron football, with crackling crust, the insides formed of a soft snapping web of pale gluten. I had never seen a bread like it.

“My God,” he had said then, “it is exactly like the bread in Paris!”

French bread is the king of white breads, delicately fragrant, with a custardy, frothy crumb as airy as meringue, and a crust that shatters noisily in your jaws.

But American bread, Wonderbread, is a sort of shaving cream that impersonates bread. When I was growing up, each schoolday my mother dutifully assembled for my Charlie’s Angels lunchbox a regulation ham and mayonnaise sandwich, with one leaf of lettuce folded like a handkerchief, which by noon was halfway devolved to algae. This bread could be chewed with your lips. When I picked it up, my fingers sank as if into mud.

You could get a thing called “French bread” from the supermarket, a long wide loaf, which blew terrific warm yeasty steam at you but was still as collapsible as Wonderbread, distinguished merely by shape, warmth, the existence of its odor, and a hardish crust. This we only ever bought to make the thing called “garlic bread,” to accompany our occasional exotic treat of spaghetti accompanied by Ragu.

What was then called “whole wheat” bread appeared to be Wonderbread with a spoonful of floor sweepings mixed in.

With jasmine rice dished out by the vat to soak up my mother’s Chinese cooking every night, I only found out what real bread actually was much later, in New York with friends, in that restaurant basket covered by a soft white napkin. I remember my animal pleasure at putting my hand down and finding that thin cloth warm, as if it swaddled something alive. From underneath sighed a perfume of caramel, wine and orris, all these little varied seeded hot buns waiting to be torn open and dressed in soft butter or tapenade or dipped in grassy green oil.

“Don’t fill up on bread!” my tablemates warned each other, filling up on bread.

And my favorites were always the brownest, densest buns, with their dark aroma like nuts and chocolate, sometimes studded with raisins, sometimes flavored with molasses, but mostly tasting just of the wheat itself, this fateful grain that Joseph guarded in the pharaoh’s storehouses: bread, beer, civilization.

So in the oven I switch between these two dreams of bread, white and brown.

This week I made my first 100% whole wheat bread, using Cretan stone-ground wheat, Cretan honey, Cretan olive oil, and I felt very Minoan. This bread would taste delicious with a sacrificial bull.

I have adapted a no-knead recipe from the life-changing Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, because I’ve got better things to do than to stand around kneading bread. This recipe makes enough for three loaves. You can halve or double it. Once you mix the dough, you can dip in for several days, pulling out just enough dough for dinner rolls or a small day’s loaf. The rest of the week I’ll be folding in raisins, walnuts, herbs, etc., just to see what happens. A few days in the fridge gives the dough lots of sourdough character.

Baking temperature must be quite a bit lower than the blazing heat you want for white bread, to avoid scorching the sugars. Therefore the baking time is also longer.

Tania’s Utterly un-French, Easy Brown Bread

3 cups water (you can substitute half water, half milk)
1 packet granulated yeast (2 packets for a quicker rise, or put less than a packet and wait longer)
1 tablespoon salt (add a teaspoon if it’s kosher)
0.5 cup honey
5 tablespoons olive oil (you can substitute melted butter or a neutral oil)
6 2/3 cups whole wheat flour *

  1. Mix everything but the yeast in a 5-quart bowl.
  2. Using a spoon, mix in the flour until thoroughly wetted. (Don’t bother working it further or kneading.) The local dark wheat, at this point, smelled unexpectedly so much like chocolate that I rechecked the package to be sure I hadn’t thrown in brownie mix.
  3. Stretch some plastic wrap (“cling film” to you UK people, which sounds the stuff of nightmares) over the top, leaving an edge loose to let the dough breathe. Let it stand until the dough has risen as high as it can and then collapsed to a flat top, two to four hours depending on room temperature.
  4. Transfer to the fridge and leave at least overnight. The dough is easier to work cold, and a cold ripening time allows more complex flavors to develop. (Thank the bacteria.)
  5. Spread a pizza peel or large wooden cutting board (what I have) heavily with cornmeal or more whole wheat flour.
  6. Oil your hands and pull out a big chunk of dough, about a pound a half, the size of a cantaloupe. This is really wet dough, so work fast!
  7. “Cloak” the dough by stretching the top surface down to the bottom on four sides, turning as you go, forming a ball, and tucking the points underneath. I am really terrible at this. (Cover and return the rest of the dough in the bowl to the fridge to ripen even more.)
  8. Dust the top with flour and cover with a cloth napkin or lint-free clean dishtowel. Let the ball rest for an hour and a half.
  9. Preheat your oven to 350F (175C), no fan. If you’re using a baking stone, give it a good 20 minutes to heat. Put an empty broiler tray on another shelf.
  10. Slash the dough three or four times diagonally with a serrated bread knife. Make the slashes about 1/4 inch deep.
  11. Either transfer to a baking sheet or shake the dough onto your baking stone. Pour a cup of hot water into the empty broiler tray and quickly quickly shut the door. Bake 50 minutes to an hour, till the crust is browned and the loaf feels solid.
  12. Cool the loaf on a wire rack completely to allow the crumb to finish setting before you slice into it.

Things I Ate on Slices of Bread Here While Standing At the Kitchen Counter

A smear of roasted garlic (it is very easy to throw a head of garlic, wrapped in foil, in the oven while the bread is baking), oven-dried tomatoes and feta, sprinkled with oregano

A dollop of yogurt mixed with garlic and lemon (leftover sauce from dinner), with roasted red pepper strips

That same garlicky yogurt with grilled eggplant slices

Melitzanosalata (homemade)

Boiled ham and butter

Olive oil and sardines (on toast)

Butter and honey or sour cherry jam (on toast, for tea)

καλή όρεξη!

* I hate measuring flour. My home ec teacher taught us to stir the flour in the container, then to spoon the flour lightly into a cup and level it off with a knife or the edge of the spoon. This is messy and boring. Scooping the cup directly into the container and sweeping it off is the method that Hertzberg and François use in their book, which results in more flour per cup than the previous method. But I can’t be bothered to transfer my flour out of the bag. So I compromise: I scoop and sweep one cup of flour, weigh it, and then weigh the rest based on that. By the way, whole wheat flour can go rancid; keep it in a waterproof container in the fridge or freezer.

Oops, looks like I shoved a bit of dry flour in there. Ah well, it's just me eating it.

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§ 4 Responses to The Color of Bread (recipe at end)

  • Amy says:

    My tummy is grumbling. I love bread. I DO fill up on bread. I COULD live on bread alone. It IS the staff of life.

  • dianadraw says:

    Oh my it looks delicious!

    I love the contradictory first two paragraphs – every description is apt. Bread can be a many splendid and also a many disappointing thing. And the restaurant bread – yes. It’s so exciting when they have tasty seeds! I love the darker breads too because they’re so flavorful, but must keep away because of the rye allergy. C’est la vie.

    Jesus, those sandwiches. That lettuce. I remember those.

    She made me the butter and sugar on Wonderbread sandwiches a lot too though – and then wondered why I didn’t sprout up tall like you did. Hmph.

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