I baked bread for the first time a few weeks ago, and it was a life-changing moment. Not just because it was some of the best bread I had ever tasted, but because it also made me think seriously about what bread means. In an age when we have all kinds of grain products at our disposal (rice, noodles, couscous), many a meal can pass without bread. And yet bread is one of the most basic foods.
In Judaism, a meal is often defined as one in which you eat bread. There are many brachot (blessings), each one for specific food, but if you recite the motzi, the blessing for bread, it covers the entire meal. This brings up some interesting questions, such as whether pizza counts as bread (thus requiring motzi and birkat mazon, the Grace After Meals.) Bread is life-sustaining, and deeply embedded in our culture. It links us to our times of celebration. On Passover, it is through bread–matzah, the bread of affliction–that we invite the poor to partake of our freedom. On Shabbat, bread is a reminder of God’s gift of manna, which fed the Jewish people in the dessert, and on Rosh Hashanah, we eat round, sweet bread. Challah itself solves an interesting Jewish dilemma: it is an enriched bread, meant to be celebratory, and most enriched breads (like brioche) are made with milk. Since Shabbat meals often include meat, Jews needed to create a parve loaf.
Making bread was a true act of mindful eating for me. Proud of my result, I felt joy in serving and eating it. As I munched my whole-wheat walnut quinoa bread, I thought about how bread is truly an act of a partnership with God in creation. The motzi thanks God for bringing forth bread, but what God actually brings forth is grain: human action is required to create bread. Baking bread was a way of bringing the bracha to completion.
In a wonderful coincidence, I started my journey into the world of home bread making at the same time as the November/December issue of Resurgence Magazine found its way to my kitchen counter. The issue was titled “Feasting and Fasting: Connecting the Plate and the Planet” and one of the articles (unfortunately not available yet online) was on the movement for real bread, an off-shoot of the Slow Food movement. The article was actually somewhat depressing, describing the history of industrial bread manufacturing and the sacrifices we’ve made to create perfect white loaves. 18th century bread, for example, was often adulterated with chalk and ashes in an attempt to bake cheap white bread. Modern bread is still highly adulterated, and nutrients lost in the industrial processing of wheat often need to added back (i.e. fortified bread) at the end of the process. The article also makes an interesting connection between modern bread making techniques and the rise in gluten intolerance. Dough that has time to ferment has had time for the nutrients to be released and the wheat made easier to digest. But most commercial breads have been created using a chemical process that has no fermentation time.
The Real Bread Campaign, based in the UK, is an attempt to revive the public’s connection to local bakers and to real, nourishing bread. Real bread isn’t filled with the nutrient du jour (like fish oil caplets) or filled with air (in one memorable episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown squished an entire loaf of Wonderbread into a small ball). It seems to me that we need to create a similar campaign here. Anyone who has eaten really good bread knows that there is no going back to the packaged variety found in the supermarket. But we’re losing our connection to good bread. Many neighborhoods lack a bakery. Like so many slow foods, non-industrial bread is becoming a luxury, and that’s sad.
For those of you interested in baking your own delicious loaf, I was inspired by Mark Bittman‘s “Almost No Work Whole Grain Bread” in his new book, Food Matters. It is basically a version of this recipe, but not done as a quick bread. I used all whole wheat flour. Reduce the yeast to 1/2 teaspoon, and allow it to rise for 12-24 hours. After putting it in the pan, allow another 1-2 hours of rising, until the dough doubles in size. I added 1/4 cup of quinoa (soak in water for an hour or so and then drain before adding to the dough) and 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts to the dough after the initial rising.
Photo courtesy of www.realbreadcampaign.org.