Kneading Experience

Author: Wayne Robbins
Date Published: 03/02/1994
Publication: Newsday (New York)

THERE IS good reason that we refer colloquially to money as “bread” (or “dough”) since both are necessary for survival. While it’s true that we do not live by bread alone, it’s difficult to get a good corned-beef sandwich without it.

Bread played its counter-culture role in the 1960s, a time when home-baked, organic, multi-grain bread became a symbol of protest against a straight culture defined by “white bread.” Of course, in most collectives it was the same old patriarchal bunk: The women baked bread while the men went out to fight the revolution.

Nevertheless, the revolution against white bread was, in fact, successful. Parents who once bought Wonder bread for their kids because it claimed to build “strong bodies 12 ways” have become more skeptical, and more selective. In the past year, there have been a number of new bread books published, signaling a revival of enthusiasm toward a food so basic that it’s often taken for granted.

I had never baked bread myself, and never thought about doing so. It was so “Big Chill”-ish. It should also be admitted that the concept was utterly intimidating. Yeast! Nearly rhymes with “yeesh,” and sounds like an infection. Yeast was reputed to be less stable than hydrogen, less stable, even, than Ross Perot. I imagined the most dire consequences for the most fractional mismeasure: the stove exploding, flour flying, great yeast bubbles coagulating on the ceiling, dropping and crawling into the living room and swallowing the set.

What I needed, of course, was faith. So I settled on the simplest recipe in “Brother Juniper’s Bread Book” by Brother Peter Reinhart (Addison Wesley, $ 10), founder of Brother Juniper’s Bakery in Sonoma County, Calif. I liked Reinhart’s “slow-rise” philosophy. It made bread baking sound like a soothing, meditative experience. I thought it would be a nice cooperative family experience as well, so around noon one recent snowy day, my assistants, Alexandra, 12, and Elizabeth, 3, entered the kitchen.

Reinhart’s white bread loaf requires only two types of flour, sea salt, yeast and water. Reinhart gives dispensation to using instant yeast instead of active dry yeast. This yeast is added directly to dough, rather than “proofed,” or mixed with water at a precise temperature. It’s less temperamental than active dry yeast, and if it’s good enough for most of the breads made at Brother Juniper’s Bakery, it’s good enough for me.

We began by putting all the ingredients in the big bowl. Flours. Salt. Yeast. My older sous chef sensed something wrong as I began to drop 3/4 teaspoon of yeast into the bowl. “That’s not enough, dad,” said this veteran of bread-baking with her mother, my ex-wife. Sure enough, the recipe as I was using it (I cut Reinhart’s recipe in half to make one loaf rather than two) called for 3/4 tablespoon of yeast. We added the water (cool or room temperature is okay), and I thrust my hands into the bowl to stir the mixture.

“Uh, dad,” said Alexandra, once again ominously. “You should probably use a spoon to mix.”

Oh. I removed my pasty mitts from the bowl, and we took turns stirring the lumpy mix with a wooden spoon. But you can understand my distraction, since Liz was stirring her own little bowl of flour, banging her wooden spoon while demanding: “More water! More water!” So much for the monastic experience of quiet bread baking.

As it turned out, Liz was right. The dough was much too dry, and we added nearly two more cups before we were satisfied. We stirred some more while Liz changed her recipe. “Milk in the batter, milk in the batter! Stir it, scrape it, make it, bake it!” from Maurice Sendak’s “In The Night Kitchen.” We added no milk to the batter, but we stirred it and scraped it before we tossed the dough on a flour-sprinkled table, pounded it and rolled it. Reinhart, like most bakers, calls for at least 10 to 12 minutes of kneading; we found after five or six minutes, we had the texture we wanted – tacky, but not sticky.

The rest of the job was easy. We put the dough back into the bowl, covered it with a slightly damp towel, and did nothing. This is where what Reinhart calls “the Tao” effect comes in. You can go about your life for the next hour and a half – think, read, exercise, listen to Megadeth albums, watch “Weinerville” on the tube – as long as you remember to come back in an hour and a half.

At that time, the dough had risen some, and it was time to pummel it back into submission, until it attained the right texture: softer than Silly-Putty, more flexible than freshly chewed Turkish Taffy. Then back in the bowl, under the towel, for 90 more minutes, during which time we sang hymns, smoked cigars, hurled epithets at Barney and played pinochle.

Once again, we took out the dough, this time rolling it into a cylindrical shape, folding as we rolled so a seam formed on the bottom. We put the dough, now looking like a loaf, into our bread pan, which we had “greased” with butter. We let it, in the words of Dr. Seuss, sit, sit, sit, under the towel for yet another hour.

When the dough looked as if it would overflow the pan, and my fantasies of the Yeast-Monster That Ate Our Apartment becoming once again vivid, we popped it into the preheated 350-degree oven. After 25 minutes, I turned the pan around. After 20 more minutes, we pulled it out of the oven, out of the pan, onto a bread board, where I allowed it to sit undisturbed for another half hour, during which time the family gathered around the hearth, discussing Moses and Abraham, Adler and Freud, Tonya and Nancy.

The loaf certainly looked like bread. To the slight amazement of all, this steaming mass also tasted like bread, deliciously so. After high-fives all around, all was quiet but for the sound of four mouths chewing.

Books to Bake Bread By

‘THE IL FORNAIO BAKING BOOK” by Franco Galli (Chronicle Books, $ 19.95). Starting with one small San Francisco store 14 years ago, Il Fornaio now is a chain of nearly two dozen restaurants and retail bakeries in California. Italian-born chef and baker Galli gives the chain its “culinary identity.”

Galli’s approach is low-tech, focusing on recipes that can be produced at home without fancy equipment. They can be as basic as pagnotta (round country bread), as alluring as pizza pugliese (pizza with tomato, black olives, capers and garlic), as indulgent as torta d’Alassio (chocolate cake with hazelnuts and honey).

Galli also writes with off-hand charm. “Italy is divided into two types of bread eaters: those who like la crosta, the crust, and those who prefer la mollica, “the crumb,” he writes. He’s a “crust person”; his sister Teresa, crumb. “Italians are stubborn about their bread,” he concludes with a regretful sigh, “Teresa and I will never reconcile this difference.”

“The Village Baker: Classic Regional Breads from Europe and America,” by Joe Ortiz (Ten Speed Press, $ 24.95). Ortiz, another California bread maker, covers plenty of bases: historical, social and technical. His centuries-old model is that of French village bakers who have “defined the craft in the same way as [the French] have perfected the art of wine making. The baker doesn’t just provide food; he is the spiritual hub, as essential to the well-being of the village as the family doctor.

The recipes range from pain ordinaire (classic yeasted French bread) to sourdough apple bread, which one shouldn’t undertake unless you’ve got eight to 10 days for the apple starter and two days for the “refreshments,” in addition to six hours of baking time. Ortiz also provides recipes for more familiar European breads, such as challah, Jewish-style rye, focaccia and an Austrian specialty known as brezeln, pretzels. This is not for novices; you can’t loaf your way through it.

“Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise As Method and Metaphor,” by Brother Peter Reinhart. (M.F.K. Fisher’s foreword (the book was first published in 1991 and issued in paperback last October) calls this an odd book, and adds: “Of course, Brother Peter is odd.” His brethren and sisters began as a hippie-era group called Holy Order of MANS; now it’s known as the Christ the Savior Brotherhood and is affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church.

But this also is easy to use and pleasant to read. Reinhart’s specialty is struan, a virtually extinct harvest bread from Scotland. Reinhart’s version is made from wheat, corn, oats, brown rice and bran, moistened with buttermilk and sweetened with brown sugar and honey. You might want to stick with his white bread. Among Reinhart’s amusing tangents is a short chapter called “Lessons Learned at Chili Cook-Offs,” but there’s even a method to this madness. It concludes with an appealing recipe for Tex-Mex cumin bread, “the spirit of chili in the form of a loaf.”

“Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves From Your Own Hands,” by Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik (William Morrow & Co., $ 25). While Peter Reinhart’s approach to bread is spiritual, Leader is an unabashed sensualist. A former chef at the Water Club and La Grenouille, Leader now owns and operates the Bread Alone Bakery near Woodstock, N.Y. His recipes are clear, descriptions are thorough. And his vivid prose sometimes borders on the erotic. “I can’t resist . . . I plunge. Both hands go deep, up to my elbows. A tingle rushes up my arms and I feel the delight I always feel as I scoop up from deep within the bin.”

He’s talking about wheat berries, but I’m not sure whether reading this makes me want to bake bread or take a cold shower. – Robins

Recipes

Brother Juniper’s Bread

2 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt

3/4 tablespoon instant yeast

2 cups water (add more as needed)

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mixing until you can form it into a ball. Toss a few sprinkles of white flour on the counter and on your fingers. Turn out the dough and knead for 6 to 10 minutes, until the dough has a nice elasticity.

2. Return dough to bowl, cover with damp towel or plastic wrap. Leave out to rise at room temperature for about 1 1/2 hours, or until dough has doubled in size. Punch it down, knead for a few minutes, form it into a ball and return to bowl. Cover with damp towl or plastic wrap again and let rise for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

3. Using the heels of both hands, form dough into a cylindrical shape. Roll back and forth to smooth the surface, and as you roll overlap the dough slightly so a seam forms. Place the dough, seam-side down, in a greased bread pan approximately 10 by 4 1/2 by 3 inches, although any pan close to those dimensions is fine.

4. Allow the loaf to rise in the bread pan at room temperature for about 1 hour. When dough is cresting to the top of the pan, place in a preheated, 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes. Remove loaf from oven and allow to stand at least 20 minutes before cutting. Makes 1 loaf.