Cheese + Flour + Yeast + Salt + Eggs = The Ancient Mystery of Bread

Bread loaf 2
Pain ordinaire chez moi (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

To contemplate bread even more, please go my previous post, Panis Gravis, or, Bread, Endless Nurturer.

I’ve baked bread for years and years. In fact, except for the odd hamburger bun, my family never eats “boughten bread,” as my mother-in-law called it.

In a time when “carbohydrate” evokes images reminiscent of horror films, singing the merits of bread may seem like advocating for the return of feudalism.

But, in spite of all the denial of bread as a food in pop food culture, please remember that bread made from wheat plays a vital – if hidden – role in the culinary identity of most people raised in the desert religions of the Middle East, be it Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  Just to illustrate the importance of bread, think about this – during the Reformation, Christians split up partially because of issues with bread, disputing whether or not at the consecration of the host [bread] the priest turned the bread on the altar into the actual body of Christ.

And, yet, the history of fermented wheat bread, like a stone thrown into a calm pond, ripples all the way back to the baker priests of ancient Egypt, securing long-lasting  ties between myth and ritual and bread.

Villages built communal bread ovens, many round and shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly, tying the concept of life itself to bread. Seasoned over the centuries, bread-related myths arose, like that of the Greek goddess of grain, Demeter, and her daughter Persephone.

Unfortunately, in spite of the valiant efforts of artisanal bakers rising up nearly everywhere I turn, bread rarely evokes that ancient sense of mystery and awe. Low-carb dieters shun it and gluten-free* diehards rush to tasteless imitations.

People don’t believe me when I say this, but try it, please. Walk down the aisle of the packaged bread section in your supermarket and sniff. Yes, sniff. Give it a real, deep, grunting snort.

If you’re like me, you’re not snorting in disdain. No, you’re smelling the overwhelming  stink of chemicals used to preserve the bread.  Grabbing a plastic-encased loaf of bread, or even one authentically wrapped in porous paper, cannot even begin to come close to the sensuous experience of baking bread in your own oven.

Pause, if you will, for a moment and ponder what the great American writer M. F. K. Fisher said about bread baking:

[It is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells … there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of baking bread. ~ The Art of Eating

And you know what is so wonderful about baking bread: the infinite diversity. There’s always something new to savor, a culture to delve into, traveling to a faraway place without having to stumble through airport security and the endless lines at customs.

I discovered a new bread the other day – new to me anyway – a bread from the Republic of Georgia, a bread that can be eaten as a full meal, maybe with some fruit on the side or a small salad. What was this little wonder, this ticket to a country on Black Sea, a place where people grow extremely old?  The Georgian bread called Acharuli khachapuri, intriguing to me because of the ending of the word, “puri.” Cheese-filled, and garnished with a whole egg added and baked in the last 5 minutes, this bread looks like a small boat or a fish.  Fresh and hot from the oven, Acharuli khachapuri bears absolutely no resemblance to the sorry excuses for bread sagging on grocery store shelves.

Bake some bread today and break it with friends. Take a loaf to someone who needs sustenance in his soul as well as his body.

Or just eat it all by yourself, while watching the snow or the rain or the wind blowing through the trees outside your window.

The recipe I use weekly – sometimes I add herbs or a few cups of whole wheat flour instead of all white flour:

A Daily Bread for the Journey
Makes 4 medium loaves

1 T. dry yeast
1 t. sugar
2 cups warm water
8-9 cups bread flour
1 T. sea salt
1/3 -1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil (I put more in when I am making pizza dough from this recipe)
Up to 2-3 c. additional water (more or less)

Proof the yeast in the water and sugar until bubbly.

Put flour and salt in large mixing bowl or Kitchen Aid mixer bowl or food processor; use dough hook.

Pour in yeast and extra water, and start mixing. When gluten strands (string-like) appear, add oil. Mix, add more water if necessary until dough is only slightly sticky. Knead 2-3 minutes in machine or until smooth. By hand this might take 10 minutes or so on a lightly floured board.

I usually give the dough a few kneads on the board even if I do the major part of the kneading in the machine.

Place dough in a large greased mixing bowl, flip over so greased side is up, and cover with a clean and very damp towel that has been wrung out.  Let dough rise until doubled.

Shape the dough into whatever you want. Let bread loaves rise, but pizza and focaccia don’t need a second rise.

For free-form bread, heat oven to 375 F and bake 30 minutes or so. Rolls, heat oven to 425 and bake 15-20 minutes. Pizza and focaccia, heat oven to 500 and let heat (with baking stone) for 1/2 hour. Bake pizza and focaccia about 15 minutes or until golden on edges, etc.

For a type of fougasse,  ”paint” the rolled-out dough with olive oil and then sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary or other herbs, coarsely ground black pepper, and coarse sea salt.

For further reading:

Goldstein, Darra. The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia (1993).

Jacob, H. E. Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History (1944, reprinted 19977 and 2007)

Margvelashvili, Juilanne. The Classic Cuisine of Soviet Georgia: History, Traditions, and Recipes (1991).

Shimizu, Karen. “Everlasting Feast,” Saveur, Issue 155, April 2013, pp. 60 – 75.

Sinclair, Donna. The Spirituality of Bread (2007)

Wolfert, Paula. “A Feast of Flavors: Warm, Welcoming Food from Soviet Georgia,” Food & Wine, October 1990, pp. 69-79+.

*Gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, actually exists in only 1 in every 133 people or 1% of all Americans. See statistics HERE.

Georgian bread 1
Bread from the Republic of Georgia (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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