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Beginnings: Plain White Bread

August 21, 2006


I have always been fascinated by yeast. Starting dough is like planting seeds in a box of dirt and then watching the first leaves uncurl damp from the earth, and holding your breath as your first green tomato balloons, impossibly, like a bubble on a pipe. A seed will grow, somehow, if you put it in the ground. All by itself, without much help, its small body unfolds into something completely unlike its beginning, something impossible to replicate with machines and mechanical parts, a tiny unstoppable power in a wrinkled seed.

This is all quite genuinely surprising to me - not some maudlin sentiment of beauty and nature and all that. That power of organic growth, often happening in darkness, in the quiet places where no one sees, the sheer quantity of silent growth and anti-entropy that happens every day in the smallest, weakest things on earth, it takes me aback when I remember to notice.

Yeast and seeds just seem to be so busy and powerful all on their own, without much notice from us. My weblog title, mekuno, is taken from the Greek (a bad transliteration, I suspect) from a word that means "to grow, to lengthen." It occurs once in the New Testament. In Mark, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who sows his seed and goes to bed, "and the seed sprouts and grows - how, he himself does not know."

This seems like such a profound spiritual and physical truth, that growth happens when we are not looking for it, that our own growth is happening in places we are not aware of, that we go to bed and get up in the day and do our thing and cook our food and live in our relationships, and somehow, somewhere, as inexorably as that leaf uncurling or that yeast multiplying silently, there is growth happening under the surface. If I didn't believe that on some level, that living things are meant to grow before they die, and that even their death brings life, and that there was hope for change, as gradual as it may be, I don't know how I would get up in the morning. It's hard enough as it is.

I believe this applies to cooking and the kitchen as well. As I cook and learn and repeat and make mistakes, there is some instinct that is slowly awakened, growing. The more I go about my business and cook, the more that will grow silently. At least, that's the idea.

In the spirit of this, I am returning to the veritable start point of the food chain, the "GO" square of human sustenance, the place we begin and end and where I should have by rights have begun myself: plain bread.


Plain white bread is nothing more than flour, water, salt, yeast - maybe a little sugar. None of these things are simple.

Flour is bruised and crushed grain, with millions of tiny bits of kernel and center, pulverized into soft, cool specks that swell and expand. Water and salt are elemental compounds that are universal all over the world - when you taste a grain of salt you are tasting your own sweat and tears.

And yeast - tiny living creatures that busily multiply into enormous families - rabbits have nothing on them - after waking up from their long, dark, cool sleep. Behind your back they grow silently and raise this simple mixture with their offspring, converting sugars into complex tastes of wheat, sweet and sour, savory and cool, with warrens of caves and pockets and air bubbles that give a different chewy texture in every bite.

Bread is nothing more nor less than the fruit of the ground, salt of our bodies, water of life and birth and the hot, hot burst of the sun and the oven.

The recipe below is an extremely basic white bread recipe, with some adjustments that I have been learning from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Perhaps the leading guru of bread at the moment, Reinhart has written extensively on bread and some of the newer techniques that are actually pushing the ancient art of bread into new places. This recipe uses, partially, his refrigeration technique, which allows the sugars and yeast in the bread to ripen into more complex flavors before the yeast goes crazy with multiplication. (How d'ya like that scientific explanation, eh?) His book is a treat, and I have been working my way through it.

This method may look a little complicated, but it's not, really. It just takes getting used to. All I know is that I've been baking bread, blindly, for a long time, and this method gives me the best loaves I have ever made in my kitchen. They are deliciously crusty on top and soft in the center, with a good firm crumb and a complex taste that brings out the best in your flour. Use good flour. I like King Arthur bread flour. It's wonderful to know that such basic, simple things can produce such deliciousness, handled in the right way, and I hope that more such discoveries are still to come. In the meantime, I have my eye on the yeast.

Plain White Bread

1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 tsp)
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp salt
3-4 cups all-purpose flour

1. Stir together the yeast and water and let sit for a few minutes until foamy.
2. Stir in the salt and about half the flour.
3. Add the flour gradually, half a cup at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon or in the bowl of an electric mixer equipped with a dough hook.
4. When the dough pulls away from the sides and the bottom of the bowl, turn it out onto a well-floured countertop. This is where the workout begins! Knead or slam the bread around for about 6-7 minutes, until it is silky elastic and a piece will stretch when pulled and become nearly translucent before breaking.
5. Oil a bowl (I use spray olive oil) and turn the ball of dough into it. Spray the top, cover with plastic wrap, and set in the back of the fridge overnight - or for a couple days.
6. The day you want to bake the bread, take the dough out of the fridge. It will have risen some, but not nearly as much as it would if it had been sitting out at room temperature.
7. Prepare a heavy baking sheet with parchment and scatter semolina or coarse cornmeal on top.
8. Shape the bread into a boule, tucking the ends under. Place on the sheet and lightly mist again with oil and cover lightly.
9. Let the dough proof for about 2 hours or until doubled in size. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 450F and place a heavy, shallow pan on the lowest rack.
10. Slash or cut the top of the bread with sharp scissors. This allows some steam to escape and the bread to rise.
11. Get some water boiling on the stove, and when the bread is ready to go in, pour a few cups of boiling water in the pan on the bottom rack. Slide the bread in quickly and shut the oven. After a few minutes of steaming, lower the temperature to 400F.
12. The bread should bake for about 25 minutes, depending on hot your oven runs. The most reliable way to check if it's done is to flip it over, insert an instant-read thermometer and check the temp. It should be between 200 and 210F.
13. Let the bread cool for at least an hour on a rack before slicing. This is very important! Resist temptation - it's much better after the initial heat has evaporated.

Posted by Faith at 21 August 2006

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Nice looking bread! Quite magical indeed the way it all happens!

Posted by: Bea at La Tartine Gourmande at August 21, 2006 09:06 PM

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