Circuses First, Then the Bread
by Peter Zelchenko January 23, 2009

It's that time of the month for us hopeless political idealists, the time where our gnawing anxieties about President Obama's odd allegiances to the Chicago Machine, not to mention the DCCC, give some of us "huge pause" about whether he really can become the next Roosevelt. But the brain begins to hurt thinking about this and friends get irritable, start saying words like unpatriotic and terrorist and, worse, Republican. Take two Motrin and stow it for the time being. The Guantanamo decision was cool, though.

Hey, let's just make some bread instead. It's been a long time since I described how to re-engineer whole-wheat flour. But first, the answer to last week's rather unpopular pictorial quiz came from Eamon Daly, who correctly identified the object as a street pole banner bracket. His was the first response and it came less than 10 minutes after Party Line was sent out.

There are tens of thousands of these fiberglass-and-aluminum "arm brackets" on streetlight posts all over Chicago. At around $50 apiece, you need four -- two banners for each post and one bracket each for top and bottom -- for every forgettable promotion that the city deems spendworthy. Wrong guesses included a snow-depth tester (Lauren Vega), a manhole-cover prybar (rightly anonymous), and a device to help stuff bundles of wires or cables into narrow gaps (uh, myself).

Now to the bread. You may recall my magnanimously persuading you that it's cheaper and more efficient to rebuild whole-wheat flour from its constituent parts: white flour with some wheat bran and wheat germ added in (keep the germ in the freezer, pleezer).

This isn't a "substitution," it's genuine whole-wheat flour. Commercial mills actually tend to make it this way, just as milk producers reintroduce different quantities of milkfat to defatted milk to create 1%, 2%, whole (4%) milk, light cream, heavy cream, etc.

But let's talk about regular white bread first. I'm telling you, there are really only one or two things to know about making bread:

  1. A cup of liquid can absorb a pretty predictable amount of flour, and a good deal of it -- around 3.5 cups
  2. A good "heaping spoonful" of yeast, around the contents of a packet, is enough to saturate that water (and its flour) with around the right amount of colony to get it all to rise in a reasonable time

I'm assuming you at least have some vague notion of what the yeast is for, and some faint memories of making flour and bread.

So, in shorthand, to make bread:

"A cup of warm, yeasty liquid will take a lot of flour (almost 4 times its volume)."

Really, that's the recipe for a loaf of bread. All you need to remember is that cup. If you took a cup of lukewarm water, dissolved that yeast into it, and just started working in white flour, adding and kneading just enough until it was a smooth, elastic, solid mass, it would have absorbed about 3.5 cups of flour, give or take a quarter cup or so. You'd also have a blob of dough about the bulk of a 16" Chicago softball, around the size you'll need for a standard rectangular loaf of bread. If you were to let that double in bulk ("proof" or "rise") in a warm place, knead it again, drop it in some pan or other, let it rise again in that form, then bake it at 350 for about 45 minutes or until the top were golden-brown, you'd have a genuine and probably pretty yummy loaf of white bread.

Or a couple of baguettes. Or bread sticks, pizza, dinner rolls, English muffins, bagels and bialys, naan, hot-dog or hamburger buns, challah. Because technically these and many more things can all be made from this basic mixture. The formed things are given a second rise after forming, but flatbreads (like pizza and naan) aren't. Some, like the English muffins and naan, can be cooked in a hot, covered frying pan, kind of like a small oven. The bagels are actually boiled a little before baking.


You can even deep-fry this dough (like Spanish churros or Chinese you tiao) or roll it out, coat both sides with melted butter and fry it. Watch it spring up a little without a second rise. Hey, that can accompany a savory Indian dish or it can be dusted with cinnamon sugar and used as a dessert.

The vast majority of "breadstuffs" you will ever see commit more or less to this numbingly simple ur-recipe. The first enhancements we might consider are some salt and sugar, and a little oil or butter. (How much? Try to estimate what makes sense.)

Mostly we add "stuff," such as other fats or oils (texture); sweeteners, including molasses (flavor and color); milk (i.e., butterfat and sugar, see above) instead of water; eggs (chewiness); whole-wheat constituents and/or other flours (yuppieness); herbs and spices; seeds, nuts, dried fruit. In short, almost anything you can imagine. But the basic three ingredients and their quantities stay more or less the same.

We also coat the crust with almost any of these same things. Sweeteners (including milk, a sweetener) will brown, egg will glisten, water will toughen, herbs will yuppify.

How did they come up with these supposedly "ingenious" variations? They appended ideas to the basic white bread dough recipe, just like you and I can do.

So, for example, a rye bread recipe will have some rye flour instead of just wheat. (How much? I have no idea; put "some" in and see if it says rye bread when it's done, or glance at a couple of recipes!) You wouldn't use only rye flour, because it doesn't have enough gluten to rise impressively, like wheat flour does (although you could; people once did, of course). Caraway seeds are also natural with rye bread. Dark rye is just the same thing with some molasses. Ultra-dark loaves, like pumpernickel (rye), usually just add cocoa and/or molasses.

Raisin bread may have melted butter and a little sugar in the liquid; after rising it's rolled out, painted with melted butter, dusted with cinnamon sugar, dotted with raisins, then rolled up and put into a loaf pan to rise again.

(If you're starting to get the idea that raisin bread is more or less related to sweet rolls, you're right: you could just carefully slice the roll you made above, stuff the spirals into a buttered pan, let rise a second time, coat with more goo, and bake. Drizzle on a glaze made with confectioner's sugar and a little bit of water. Take a look at this random recipe and see if I'm wrong.)

Every variation is merely an ultimately obvious adjustment to the size, shape, added ingredients, and the way the dough is finally heated. Pretty versatile food.

The point of this is not to do away with all recipes. The point is to remove the unfounded panic of being overwhelmed by the complexity of "cooking," when there is really just an amazingly limited amount of knowledge out there. It's just monotonously duplicated in thousands of recipe books and hyped TV series, the relationships are obscured or completely ignored (usually for the sake of lionizing the next profitable Martha Stewart), and it makes us feel like there's far more than there really is, not to mention stupid. That's a shame, because it's extraordinarily and miraculously simple, and we lose that little miracle every time we reach for the measuring cups or the remote.

With luck, after making "just bread" a few times and understanding its meaning, you'll not only be able to make it without even thinking -- which will make it easy, fun, and routine -- you'll be able to look at and analyze almost any yeast dough recipe without fear, because you are comparing and contrasting it to what you know. And if you can do bread, you can probably do almost anything.

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