Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lab practicum: Bread

If you were to sort through the posts here, you would probably find that at least half of them are about bread. That's partly because bread was the core of the Mormon pioneer diet, so I have taken a pretty hard look at it. But also, bread is just so amazing! With the complexities of flour and the mysteries of yeast, how can you not tear into a loaf and just leave yourself astounded?

Like you, most of my food activities happen in a kitchen. In the kitchen we have cups and teaspoons to measure ingredients; thermostats to control temperature for the rising time; ovens with adjustable, stable heat; and sinks and running water to clean up. All of these things shape the way we approach food. To take these away would create a different cuisine entirely. That's what I did this weekend.

Every Labor Day weekend, thousands of people converge on Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Jim Bridger built the fort in the late 1830s (I think-- maybe 1840) as an economic hub for the fur trade. The Mormons bought the fort in the early 1850s and used it as a staging station for emigration. Then the U.S. army took possession of the fort in the late 1850s, and so on. Over Labor Day each year, the fort hosts a living historical reenactment of the fur trade era rendezvous, with other living history reenactors joining in as well. I camped for the weekend with some friends who do colonial era history, but I spent my time making bread over a fire.

I tried to approach the bread making in the style of Emily Stewart Barnes' mother, who, after living for several years with just a frying pan, found the Dutch oven as a remarkable innovation to her bread making. Without using measuring utensils, I mixed dough by hand in a wooden bowl. (At home I use a KitchenAid mixer.) Temperatures were anything but controlled; I had no idea how long it would take to raise the dough with drafts blowing through the tent and humidity from a threatening rain storm. Where I usually use 6 cups of flour, I think it took at least a cup less, and it never kneaded out to what I usually expect. Instead of using my usual couches to give form to the loaves, I raised it in the Dutch oven itself, in one great mass. And when it was time to bake, I heaped live coals under and on top of the oven. I didn't add any steam for the crust and I didn't slash the top as I usually do. I normally bake the loaves for 40 minutes-- instead I left it for an hour.

What do you know, but the loaves turned out exquisite! I was nervous at every stage of the process, having set all of my familiar crutches aside. I didn't have my Bread Alone baking book to prompt my memory of measurements. The rote memory didn't feel comfortable. But the bread turned out, in huge round loaves with a golden crust I've never achieved at home.

So if you ever want an adventure in cookery, try setting your measuring cups aside. Leave the cook book on the shelf. Count how many dishes you might muster from memory alone. You'll find yourself connecting with your inner pioneer in ways you might not have imagined.


Sherm said...

I remember very well my first loaf of bread in a Dutch oven. What a great experience. I cheated and did it in the back yard. I recall reading (maybe) a gg grandmother's reaction when she traded her Dutch oven for a cook stove. Ecstasy! I also can remember my grandmother telling about traveling by wagon from northern Utah to Wyoming's Big Horn Basin to settle a hundred some odd years ago. I have her bread board. This reminds me that I should use it more often.

Cowboy Curtis said...

Great post Brock. It made me hungry for some of that good bread. Did strangers start showing up and hanging around once they caught a wiff of the yummy bread baking?

And, Jen made scone's tonight. They were delicious, but she used Rhodes dough, and didn't make them from memory in a dutch oven. Anyway, did pioneers ever fry bread dough?

Brock said...

Hey Sherm, do you by any chance have access to that written account of your gg grandmother's stove? I'd love to put it in this book I'm working on...

Sally and Perry said...

I'd have loved to taste that bread. Makes me hungry just to read about it. Excellent crusty bread cannot be beat by ANYTHING!