Friday, July 13, 2012

Historical Hearth Bread, again

In my book Plain But Wholesome due out this fall from University of Utah press, there's a chapter about bread, with a few recipes. Mostly it is a history or survey about the place of bread in the diet of Mormon pioneers, which is significant. I wasn't ever really satisfied with that chapter though. Constraints of space didn't allow a thorough discussion of the bread-making process in detail.

Two days ago I fired up my brick oven to have a stab at bread in large volume. In preparation I happened to read Miss Leslie's recommendation for bread, found in her Directions for Cookery I was looking at the 1853 edition; a similar edition is found in the Utah Territorial Library catalog of the same year. This extract is not included in Plain But Wholesome. Patience, dear readers, it is a bit lengthy, but has interesting details...

"Take one peck or two gallons of fine wheat flour, and sift it into a kneading trough, or into a small clean tub, or a large broad earthen pan; and make a deep hole in the middle of the heap of flour, to begin the process by what is called setting a sponge. Have ready half a pint of warm water, which in summer should be only lukewarm, but even in winter it must not be hot or boiling, and stir it well into half a pint of strong fresh yeast; (if the yeast is home-made you must use from three quarters to a whole pint;) then pour it into the hole in the middle of the flour. With a spoon work in the flour round the edges of the liquid, so as to bring in by degrees sufficint flour to form a thin batter, which must be well stirred about, for a minute or two. Then take a handful of flour, and scatter it thinly over the top of this batter, so as to cover it entirely. Lay a warmed cloth over the whole, and set it to rise in a warm place; in winter put it nearer the fire than in summer. When the batter has risen so as to make cracks in the flour on the top scatter over it three or four table-spoonfuls of fine salt, and begin to form the whole mass into a dough..."

This "sponge method" is called by most bakers today a "poolish." It aims to grow yeast strength and flavor profile in the bread over time, most typically in breads we would think of as "french bread." This method is described quite similarly in Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible, (2003) and it is the method I use when baking hearth bread from yeast.

Leslie's bread method goes on for 500 more words, still not doing justice to the topic. So, dissatisfied as I was with my treatment in the book, I sat down and wrote a new treatise on the subject, which so far is running on to 20 pages. If I ever get to a point that I'm happy with how the brick oven performs, maybe I'll put this little treatise into a small pamphlet to give to people who come to a bread-making workshop. For now, you can visit The Fresh Loaf for further explorations of bread starting from a poolish.