The Art and Science of Bread

A year ago, my sister sent me a book called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. and Zoe Francois, which I squeezed into our amply stocked shelf of cookbooks and promptly forgot. But recently, the idea of baking bread came as a logical conclusion to my growing interest in food-growing and cooking as comforting counterpoints to my witnessing the ongoing economic and political disaster unfolding around us. The fact that one consequence of the latter is severely escalating bread prices certainly contributed to my interest in doing my own baking.

Herzberg and Francois’s book advocates mixing batches of dough sufficient for three or more loaves at a time, then storing it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake a fresh loaf. At that time you divide off a portion of the refrigerated dough, form it into a loaf, and allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature. No kneading is necessary, and many of the recipes call for baking without a pan, on a baking stone, which is a slab of ceramic material that gets preheated in the oven before you slide the bread on top of it. There are a few details to attend to, such as scoring the top of the loaf previous to baking, and making provision for steam in the oven over the first few minutes of baking time to help develop the bread’s crispy crust.

Not long after successfully baking my first loaf, I ran across a book in the library, 52 Loaves, A Half-Baked Adventure, by William Alexander. The author spent a year, baking one loaf of bread a week, in a quest to discover the perfect “peasant loaf,” which is the bread style I’d just been experimenting with myself. This book proved to be a fascinating and entertaining read. The author includes considerable information on the history, chemistry, and custom of baking bread. At the end of the year he describes at length five days that he spent living in a French monastery, teaching the monks to do their own baking, in the process managing finally to attain his own “perfect” loaf.

I bring up bread in the context of Mindport since formal or informal science plays such a large part in enabling the baker to create an object conferring such aesthetic and gustatory delight. The authors of both the books I’ve mentioned here, plus another book on the subject of no-knead bread that’s worth a look, My Bread, by Jim Lahey (with Rick Flaste), have done a tremendous amount of research and experimentation to develop their recipes, delving into the physics and chemistry of bread, which is doubly complex due to the fact it depends on yeast, a living organism, for many of its dynamic properties. William Alexander, for his part, sings the praise of the aesthetic and sensual pleasure of bread-making. A loaf of bread, hence, seems to me to be the perfect embodiment of art and science combined in one beautiful and tasty object, the ideal metaphor to express Mindport’s avowed aim of integrating two ways of understanding the world that are frequently juxtaposed in opposition to one another.

Bread, serving as a ritual object or metaphorical idea, has a long history.  “Breaking bread” with someone signifies a form of personal communion in taking sustenance together; the Lord’s Prayer uses bread as a metaphor, as in “Give us this day our daily bread.” The wafer used in Christian communion, symbolizing the body of Christ, is a special bread. In the Jewish tradition “showbread” is a form of bread or cake presented as an offering to God. Grains, made into bread, have provided a basic food staple for millennia. It’s no wonder that bread is so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness.

Perhaps the growing interest in good food and bread that I detect in the air might be serving as compensation for our excessive preoccupation with technology and the virtual world of cyberspace, which have alienated us from our roots in the physical earth and our own manual skills. That’s a cause for hope. Our main reminders of our biological and physical origins nowadays seem to be birth, sex, and death. I would include eating and food with these basic connections, but many of us no longer prepare our own food, and we often distract ourselves during meals with TV and iGadgets, to the point that eating has become just another chore to hurry through. Personally, as a gesture of revolt against that, I’ve begun to experience growing, preparing, and eating food as reassuring activities affirming my fundamental rootedness in the soil of this planet. The ritual of creating a aesthetically beautiful and sensually delicious loaf of bread from the basic materials of flour, salt, water, and yeast is a satisfaction crowning the many other social and physical rewards that come with cultivating a more mindful connection to the food I eat.

Kevin Jones