Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
My husband was a big help when it came to kneading dough
Back in what now seem to me to be the dark ages of my life, when I was a young mother, I made almost all our bread. I liked the rhythm that bread making added to a day; it was like having a pleasant, good-smelling house guest with whom, off and on all day, I could stop and chat. Late morning I would start the yeast, measure flour and sugar and salt into the mixing bowl, add liquids, stir and mix. That done, I’d plop the dough out onto the floured board and knead until the dough felt elastic and smooth. Then I’d put the kneaded dough into a big bowl, cover with a tea towel, and place the bowl in a warm spot.
Depending on weather and the temperature in the kitchen, the dough would have risen up high and puffy by two in the afternoon and be ready to knead again, divide into two loaves and tuck into buttered loaf pans for its second rise. By four, these loaves would have taken on loft and be ripe for baking. Within minutes of scooting the pans in the hot oven, yeasty bread aroma would perfume the house. By five, the loaves would be out of the oven, cooling on a wire rack. Even if I’d not said one kind word all day or done one good deed or de-fleaed the dog or defrosted the refrigerator, whose motor I’d hear groaning with effort, I could put my guilty hand on top the warm rounded loaf and tell myself, “I made something beautiful.” I didn’t know much about bread-baking. I depended upon a trio of cookbooks — Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and Adelle Davis’s Let’s Cook It Right.
Cookbooks existed that offered special instruction in making bread, but in those days I didn’t know that. I knew other women who made bread, women who were what back then we called “health nuts” and “hippies,” and I picked up hints, such as tossing sunflower seeds into dough, from them. (Some among these women also made marijuana brownies and various sweets — including pumpkin pie — loaded with pulverized hashish. But that is another story.) Almost without exception, bread these women made tasted truly good only when first taken from the oven, when the butter with which a thick slice was spread melted so deeply into its innards that it seeped through the other side onto one’s palm. After these loaves cooled, the bread tended to turn hard and tough. Their bread was so healthy, so loaded down with non-wheat flours, that cold, it wasn’t — I thought — fit to eat.
Why this “health” bread usually turned so untasty was, in part, its lack of wheat flour (flour is simply a powdery, pulverized substance, and wheat flour is powdery, pulverized wheat seed). The wheat seed from which flour is made contains in its endosperm (the green plant’s version of the mammal’s placental tissue), storage protein designed to feed a seedling until it begins to make its own food through photosynthesis. Among these storage proteins are gliadin and glutenin. These endosperm proteins when combined with water form gluten, which, basically, is a complex network of intertwined proteins with water molecules filling the interstices. Flours made from cereals other than wheat, flours such as rye and barley, because their endosperm contains little or no gliadin and glutenin, form little or no gluten. (For an excellent discussion of gluten and how it works, read Harold McGee’s chapter on “Bread, Doughs and Batters” in McGee’s On Food and Cooking.)
Stone Age man made a flat bread-like food. This bread was made of wild roots and stalks of herbs ground together between flat stones and then spread on rocks and left to harden under the sun. Later, similar mixes of roots and herbs were baked in an open fire, often in the fire’s ash.
To get a non-flat, or leavened, bread similar to bread we now eat required a gruel made from the wild ancestor of modern cultivated wheat and discovery of the properties of yeast. The Egyptians in about 4000 B.C. made the first raised, or leavened, breads. Historians guess that this raised bread was made through serendipitous contamination of a raw wheat gruel by airborne yeasts. The Egyptians went on to isolate and culture these wild yeasts, and by 300 B.C., yeast making was a specialized profession in Egypt. (Yeasts also make beer and wine possible. In 1871 Louis Pasteur proved that natural alcoholic fermentation always involves the activity of yeast cells and not the magical intervention suspected by many bakers.)
“Yeasts,” writes John Thorne in his chapter “Natural Leavens: Sorting out Sourdough in his book Outlaw Cook, “are microscopic fungi that live in profusion all about us, waiting for the right conditions to multiply.” The “right conditions” are, generally, heat and moisture. Ubiquitous on plant leaves and flowers, yeasts are also found on skin and in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, where they may live symbiotically or as parasites. In pregnant women or women taking antibiotics, the “yeast infection” caused by a yeast-like fungus, Candida albicans, is not uncommon.
Yeast “raises” or expands bread by fermenting carbohydrates such as glucose, fructose, maltose, and sucrose. Fermentation generates the carbon dioxide gas that expands the dough. As carbon dioxide gas develops, it becomes trapped inside gluten’s network of elastic strands. The trapped gas enters air pockets within dough and also creates more air pockets. As more gas develops, pressure builds up within these spaces. The pressure stretches elastic gluten strands, increasing volume of the dough.
The Romans often used a leaven made of grape juice and millet to raise breads; the juice contained the yeast found on grape skins. Celts in Britain skimmed off foam that forms on beer during fermentation and used that yeasty foam to leaven bread.
When the colonists came to North America, they brought with them all the old leavening techniques. What became the most common method, however, of raising bread was use of a mix of grain, flour, or potatoes, on all of which yeasts flourish. “Starters,” or “sponges,” were made from these mixes and used as leaven for raised breads and rolls, flapjacks, doughnuts, and biscuits. Some of the starter would be held back and replenished with more flour and water for use in the next baking session. When girls married, their mothers gave them a pot of starter for their new home; when families moved into the frontier, they took their starters with them.
In the late 19th Century, Austrian chemists began mass-producing a baker’s yeast — Saccharomyces cerevisiae— for breads. Yeast cells were “planted” in vats containing fermenting brew. When the bubbling yeast rose to the top and frothed, the yeasty froth was skimmed off, washed, and allowed to dry. The dried yeast was then formed into cakes. In 1863 an Austrian-born immigrant to the United States, Charles Fleischmann, returned home to Austria; he brought back to America a test tube filled with this yeast. By 1868 Fleischmann (whose company’s red-and-yellow packets still grace grocery shelves) had grown enough yeast to begin selling compressed squares wrapped in tin foil to American housewives (of whom some 85 to 90 percent made their own bread).
The problem with these compressed squares of yeast was that they needed refrigeration and even then stayed alive only about two weeks. During World War II, the Army Quartermaster Corps, to supply fresh-baked bread to troops, set up mobile bakeries as close as possible to battle lines. Given the rapid spoilage of compressed yeast, Army bakers needed some other method of leavening bread. By 1943 Fleischmann’s company had produced the first dehydrated yeast for use on the battlefield. This yeast remains fresh for about one year when stored in a cool, dry place. Once the war was over, packets of this dry yeast began to be sold to housewives and are now the form of yeast most often used for home baking.
The bread my husband and children found acceptable was bread most like the soft-textured Wonder brand we could have bought at the market. I discovered once by accident how to produce bread similar to this. I had made up a batch of dough for Parkerhouse rolls, a rich, buttery, eggy recipe that uses about one-third less flour than that of recipes for loaves of bread. But Rebecca, our older child, had croup, and I didn’t have time to stop and roll out all the little balls, which, stacked into a trinity, form the classic Parkerhouse shape. So I kneaded my dough, buttered up two loaf pans, divided the dough in half, and plopped it into pans for the second rising.
I stumbled along on my own with bread baking, experimenting with flours and recipes. Whole-wheat bread made with half whole wheat and half white flour produced loaves more dense than my husband and children liked. But they regarded with pleasure the Parkerhouse roll recipe made with one-third wholewheat flour and two-thirds white flour. I discovered along the way many variations on this basic recipe. I could substitute a cup of cold white rice for one cup of flour. This “rice bread” made a crisp, crunchy toast. I could substitute two cups of rye flour for two of white and, God help me, add to all this a packet of dehydrated onion soup mix and produce “onion bread.”
So you see, I was neither an experienced baker nor did I have any advanced notions about food, either as to health or tradition. I cooked simply to please my husband and children. (And in those days, when even health food queen Adelle Davis lauded butter, eggs, and whole milk, what was wrong with that? Nothing.)
By the time the girls were in junior high, my husband had begun to take an interest in cooking. His arms were strong, and he was a big help when it came to kneading dough. We began to experiment with an Americanized “French bread” made with flour, water, yeast, and salt and baked in an oven steamy from the bowl of boiling water placed in it. The steamy oven made a thick and crisp crust. When our daughters began dating, we found ourselves staying up until after midnight to make sure they returned home safely.
We began making more elaborate breads. It was often one a.m. by the time the girls were home, and we were pulling from the oven an intricately braided challah, a dozen huge cinnamon-raisin rolls, a beautiful turban-shaped brioche, or pumpernickel rounds embellished with caraway seeds.
As children we both had eaten bread our grandparents called “salt-rising” bread. Toasted, this bread gave off a rich, cheddar-cheesy aroma and a sharp sour taste. Buttered and slathered with, say, strawberry jam, salt-rising toast occupied the mouth with complex flavors.
My husband’s and my grandparents bought this bread from the small neighborhood bakeries that used to abound before the 1920s, when mass-produced, machine-made bread became regularly available in grocery stores. When we talked about this bread, we inevitably found ourselves also talking about the world in which our grandparents lived. We told stories whose immediate pre-World War I landscapes we fitted out with porch swings and gramophones, a painted white band shell in the city park, hand-cranked Fords and hand-cranked telephones and hand-cranked ice cream makers, all the artifacts of our grandparents’ lost, drowned world. My husband would say that the “river, then, was fat with trout.” I would say, “the train still stopped in every little town” and “my father’s father had not yet lost the bank.” We would recollect in our empty mouths the taste of salt-rising bread and recreate in each other’s minds scenes in which no tragedy’s scream had yet echoed through the wallpapered rooms of our grandparents’ houses.
When we asked about salt-rising bread at the several bakeries in our town (most of whose stock was doughnuts, sweet rolls, and birthday cakes), no one recalled ever having made or eaten this bread. When we traveled, we sometimes stopped at bakeries to buy bread and asked if they had salt-rising bread. No one did. But several older women working in bakeries remembered the bread and that because it used an old-fashioned starter rather than commercially produced yeast like Fleischmann’s, it could be undependable in its rise and so not something they could easily afford to make.
Then, not long ago, standing in a bookstore, flipping through Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer Baking Book, we found salt-rising bread listed in the index. We bought the book, sat in the car, and read what she had to say. We’d assumed, from the bread’s name, that salt had something to do with making the bread rise. It didn’t. According to Cunningham, “The name ‘salt-rising bread’ stems from the original method of keeping the dough warm. The bowl of dough was set in a large container of warmed rock salt, which held the heat for a long time. It’s no longer necessary to keep the dough warm with salt, although it does need to be kept warmer than conventional yeast doughs — about 100 degrees.”
We had all the ingredients, save one, listed in the Cunningham recipe — potatoes, milk, baking soda, flour, shortening, salt. For the old-fashioned non-degerminated cornmeal Cunningham calls for (the modern milling process takes the germ out of the corn kernel), we had to hunt along the shelves of a health food store to find a bag of the bright yellow meal.
At ten or so on a Saturday morning, we gathered our ingredients, recipe, and started. The recipe instructed us to peel and slice several big potatoes, put the potatoes in a bowl and cover the potatoes with boiling water. To this mixture we were to add two tablespoons sugar, one teaspoon salt, and one-quarter cup of the cornmeal. This was the bread’s “starter,” similar to starters carried in covered wagons. If all went well, the potatoes and cornmeal would ferment and act as media on which to grow yeast. Again, as directed by Cunningham, we placed this bowl in a larger bowl filled with hot water and slid this bowl into our gas oven (which the pilot light kept warm). Every 3 or 4 hours for the next 24 (except for the 7 when we slept), we poured out the water and refilled the bowl with more hot water. We asked each other, again and again, “Will it work? Will it work?”
When we awakened about seven Sunday morning, we hurried into the kitchen to see if we had yeast yet. We did. Our bowl was topped by a frothy, bubbling, dirty-sock-scented scum. As we set about following Marion Cunningham’s excellent instructions, getting flour on the floor and our faces in the process, we asked, “Will this be worth it? Will it taste as good as we remember?” By sunset we had bread. It was worth it. It tasted as good as we remembered.
photograph by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.