Thursday, October 11, 2007

Margaret Smith Lacey's Zen Bread

When I was ten, my family lived in London for a year. As a family of adventurous eaters, we all had a wonderful time exploring new-to-us cuisines. My first tastes of Indian, Greek and French happened there, just to name a few. But we also found ourselves seeing old favorites in new lights. Mom, Dad, and I all found we much preferred the peanut butter we got there, because there was no added sugar. In 1977 Indiana, it wasn't easy to find unsweetened peanut butter when we got back, though somehow Mom managed it. My brother and sister both preferred the sweetened stuff like Jiff, which has led to an ongoing good-natured battle to this day. Lunch on peanut butter day is likely to include the following exchange.

Person A: "Please pass the peanut butter.... no not that stuff, the REAL peanut butter."
Person B: "This IS the real peanut butter."
Person A. "No, that is peanut JAM, gimme the peanut butter."
Person B: "Oh, the LIBRARY PASTE. Here."

It's important for families to have traditions.

One thing we all agreed on however was that the bread we got in London was vastly better than the stuff we could buy at home, even Pepperidge Farm, our previous staple. Lots of things were different, but here again, sweetness, or lack of it, was key. When you've gotten used to no sugar, even a small amount is overwhelming.

This led Mom to start experimenting with bread recipes. As cooking has become more popular in the last few years, some of the mystery has been removed from the process, but in the late 70s bread-baking was seen as an esoteric ritual somewhere between brain surgery and voodoo. Recipes required all sorts of odd, non-negotiable things. You had to have a brick or stone in the oven, a bowl of water for steaming, the dough had to be protected from drafts and noise while rising and baking, one had to bathe in Mare's milk and dress in clean white robes before approaching the flour, the dough had to be kneaded for at least twenty minutes, always in a clockwise direction, and you never baked during a full moon in the year of the horse.

I'm not exaggerating nearly as much as you think I am.

So, one of the first things Mom discovered as she experimented was how much of that was bullshit. No bricks, no bowls of water, no need for tiptoeing around the dough while rising or baking. Best of all, NO SUGAR. Trust me on this. I'll have more to say on this subject in later.

This has been the daily bread of my family for thirty years. Bread options, indeed all food options, have improved in my hometown in the last few years, but Mom still bakes two loaves every two days. I've been baking it too for years now (though mostly just when I'm having guests), and it usually gets a very strong reaction. A lot of them call it Patrick Bread, but I feel it's important to give credit where credit is due. Later I'll explain why Mom calls it "Zen Bread."

This is the recipe.

2 and 1/2 cups warm water (not too hot)

2 teaspoons salt

1 package yeast (or 1 tablespoon, if you buy it in bulk)

6 cups of flour

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the salt in the water. Add the flour and yeast in any order you like. I typically will add three cups of the flour, then the yeast, then the remaining flour. After about four cups, you will find it easier to knead the flour in, rather than mix it with a spoon. Basically though, I don't think there is a bad way to combine these ingredients, as long as the water isn't too hot when the yeast goes in.

When it comes to kneading, this is where the Zen comes in. Mom discovered that she could knead a lot (as all previous recipes demanded) or not much at all, and not only did it not matter, often the bread tasted BETTER if she barely kneaded it. Her feeling is that the more you ignore this dough, the better it turns out. As long as most of the flour has been incorporated into the water, you've done what you needed to do. I actually enjoy the kneading process, so I often do it for a while, but I never do it longer than is fun.

For those new to baking, when you knead, you want the work surface and your hands to have dry flour on them, so as to prevent the dough from sticking to you or the surface.

Cover the dough (Mom uses just a paper towel, I use a dish towel, we're not talking airtight by any means), place it in some out-of-the-way area and let it rise for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until double in size. I usually put it in my gas oven, where the pilot light keeps it warm, but not so hot that the yeast gets killed.

After it has risen, punch it down again, kneading as much as you feel like, then if you want standard loaves, cut it in half, shape the two portions into loaves, and place them in greased bread pans. If you want to make French loaves, I find I can get six loaves out of this dough, and I place them on two greased cooking sheets. Don't be worried if the French loaves look too skinny, because they're going to rise again. You can also make rolls if you prefer. It's up to you how many you want, and how large you want them to be. They also go on greased cooking sheets.

(There are ways of shaping the dough to get a standard, even shape, but I thinking trying to describe that here would be too confusing, and give too much weight to the idea. Trust me, even if you end up with eccentric looking bread, it's going to taste just fine. If you really want to know how to control the shape somewhat, I'll have to show you in person sometime.)

Let the loaves/rolls rise for 1 hour.

Bake in a 400 F. oven. Apologies to my Dutch and Canadian friends, I haven't a clue what that is in Celsius (maybe somewhere around 170/80C?). The standard loaves will bake for 40 minutes, the French loaves and rolls will need about 20 minutes. With the standard loaves especially, you can check to see if they're baked all the way through by turning them out of the pans, and thumping them on the bottoms. If they sound hollow, they're done. If they make a wet, heavy, thunky sound, they're still raw in the middle; return to the pans and bake for at least five minutes, maybe ten.

So that's it. It may sound more daunting than it is. Sure, as with anything, your ability to read the process will improve the more you do it. I've found over the years that I can finesse the rising times if necessary, or even stop the process in the middle by shoving the dough in the fridge. I've usually allowed the loaves to come to room temperature before baking them, but on at least on occasion I've taken the loaves straight from the fridge to the oven, allowed a little more time to bake, and gotten good results.

Obviously this will taste great hot from the oven. The lack of preservatives means the bread will dry out after just a few hours, but then it makes amazing toast. If you're not going to finish it in two days, keep it in the fridge, to prevent or at least slow molding.

Mom, my sister, and I have found this dough to be remarkably versatile. We've added a little olive oil to it (no more than half a cup) and used it for pizza dough or foccaccia. I also found a recipe in the Moosewook Cookbook for pita, and realized that once I removed the unnecessary sugar, the dough was simply a half portion of this recipe. Go check out the book if you're interested. Mom has even doubled the yeast and used this recipe to make bagels. That is WAY more work than I'm willing to do, with the boiling and all, but if you know how to make bagels, this dough will work for it.

Now, the sugar issue. Many times friends have tried the recipe, and told me later "well, it was okay, but it didn't taste as good as yours. It just wasn't the same, somehow." So I'll ask them to describe what they did. They'll be talking me through it, and say "then I added the half cup of sugar (or honey)-"

"-Wait, what? You added sugar? This recipe doesn't use sugar."

Well, I figured you just forgot to write it down. Yeast needs sugar to rise."

No. No no no no no. Yeast needs gluten to rise. It will be perfectly happy with sugar, honey or high fructose corn syrup, it's true, but it is just as happy with flour. Sugar won't destroy the recipe, but it won't give you the same result. For my family, getting rid of the sugar was the whole POINT. So, if you want it, fine, just don't expect it to taste the same. (My mom had one supercilious houseguest announce that it simply wasn't possible for yeast to rise without sugar, and this twit was EATING THE BREAD AT THE TIME. I don't know what was going through her head. Did she think Mom was lying? What on earth would be her motive to do so? People crack me up.)

Now on the subject of flour types, I have to admit I have never gotten good results when I've used 100% whole wheat. I've ended up with twenty pound bricks. They were edible, but they didn't please as much. One felt terribly virtuous, perhaps, but it wasn't necessarily all that enjoyable. My best results have had half whole wheat, half unbleached white. Maybe whole wheat does require sugar since the gluten is harder for the yeast to access through the kernel. Maybe doubling the yeast would help. Maybe one HAS to knead 100% whole wheat dough for more time. I know one can also buy wheat gluten, I just don't know how to use it, whether it replaces some of the flour, or is additional. I would recommend making the recipe above a few times with no more than half whole wheat to get the hang of it, then start experimenting (and let me know what you discover).

You can also add up to half a cup of leftover oatmeal (or any cooked cereal), oat bran, some ground flax seed (I'm still experimenting with this, I wouldn't recommend more than a few tablespoons), fresh herbs etc. I almost always add uncooked oatmeal too. I've yet to experiment with non-wheat flours, but I would expect that anything which likes yeast will work.

I have this theory that this is the first dough, the one that was discovered at the dawn of time, as people began switching from nomadic to agrarian lives. There are a gazillion different variations, but they all start with this dough. Everything else is just ornamentation. When I'm making it, I feel connected to some deep, archetypal activity. Over the years it's become a form of meditation, and a prayer of gratitude, for my friends, my food, my working hands and body, even just the fact that I have a roof over my head.

So go, experiment, have fun. Feel free to send questions, and let me know what you discover.

And even when you become master bread-bakers, I hope you'll still come to my house for dinner sometimes.


tornwordo said...

I've never tried it, but you make it sound so easy. And I cracked up over "peanut butter jam".

somewhere joe said...

I only want to see two words on the label of my peanut butter: peanuts, salt. The local supermarket makes a "natural" brand that is just that. You have to re-mix the separated oil that sits at the top of the jar. I'm OK with that.

Your bread recipe looks about as primal as it gets. Bet it's delicious.

At the other end of the bread spectrum is salt-rising bread; difficult, tricky, but unusually delicious. My dad used to bring home a highly prized loaf once in a while; eventually I learned to make it. There are many online recipes and salt-rising lore. I prefer the cornmeal/potato starter.

Cooper said...

Wonderful post. There is something intensely primal about making your own bread. It brings you back to hearth and home, to a deep visceral connection with your ancestors. My Nana used to make soda bread for my grandfather, who was Irish. It doesn't contain sugar either, and soda takes the place of yeast. It's delicious. Your recipe sounds wonderful. I am going to try it.

And Patrick, I would love to come to your house for dinner!

Patrick said...

Tornwordo, it really is easy, give it a try. Joe, I'm with you; the stuff that is just peanuts doesn't work for me either, I need the salt. I have never heard of salt-rising bread, I look forward to exploring that option. I've been tempted to get some sourdough starter occasionally, but my mom's recipe is so easy, I just never got around to it.

Cooper, I love soda bread! It's been a while since I've made it, but it's wonderful. It will come as no surprise you find it everywhre in Ireland, but what I found interesting was that in most upscale restaurants there, even French and Italian places, the bread they bring to the table will usually be soda bread, or at least include some. In Seattle, the bread one is likely to find in the fancy places is sourdough.

And you're welcome for dinner anytime. Bring the boys. Bring Molly, as long as she can put up with my roommate's dachshund.