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 Going Green: One family's journey towards Harmonious Seasonality #12

EnvironmentVol. I, issue 12: Meditations on Bread
by Sherian Valenti

There are some things that it seems I have always known; that basic bread is made from only flour, yeast, water, and salt is one of those things. I don't know just how I came into this knowledge, but it has always been with me. Perhaps I was born with it, a born baker, and that is why I do it well now; baking bread is my forte. Or maybe it is just that at an early age I was able to deduce that if in the interest of full disclosure a commercial bread label lists ingredients that cannot be purchased individually in the grocery store, ingredients that require a license to own and a permit to obtain, that bread is not really bread, but merely an imitation of bread. People have been making bread with only flour, yeast, water, and salt for hundreds of years, and for the most part, it has been good bread. And after listening to my father rhapsodize over the bread his mother made in the woodstove in Northern Vermont in a house without electricity during the Depression (10 loaves at a time, to feed a family of 10 children, as the story goes), I became quite certain that although I never had any of the bread she made, and he did not have her bread recipe, that the only variations on theme of flour, yeast, water, and salt that she might have made were in the addition of milk, butter, and sugar or maple syrup, if she had any to spare.

On the other side of the family was my great-grandmother from Finland. She was a strong, independent, liberated woman, modern far ahead of her time. There are many wonderfully vivid stories about her, all of which I treasure, but it is her grandchildren's vague remembrance of her breads that always leaves me hungry for more...

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Among other things, she made rye bread, a staple in Scandinavia due to the short growing season, and pulla, a sweet, cardamom-flavored coffee bread. Like my father's mother, she made these breads often enough that she did not need to refer to a written recipe, working only from experience and memory, so that we have no record of the ingredients she used. After she died, my mother searched for a rye bread recipe that approximated the one her grandmother used, but she did not find one. The one thing that my mother and her siblings and cousins agree upon is that their grandmother's rye bread was unusual. How unusual, we cannot determine, as no one has been able to define the difference. For the cardamom bread we have found a recipe very close to hers, with butter and eggs and sugar. It is heavenly.

Several factors have come together to put thoughts of bread foremost in my mind, not the least of which is that I work in a bakery, so that while I decorate cakes, my coworkers are producing bread (of a sort). Beyond that however, is our customers, and the extent to which price determines their final purchases rather than quality of the items they are purchasing. In addition, as much as it is summer, and as much as it behooves me to enjoy summer for all its warmth, it has been too hot for me to use my oven, so haven't baked anything for a couple months (well, not much of anything), and I have a need to bake. Furthermore, as much as I regret saying it at this time, fall is coming. Fall is my favorite season. I love the cool, clear days, crisp nights, and warm flavors of fall. Apples and cinnamon, pumpkin pie, soups and stews, breads and muffins. I love the smell of fall: the leaves and the apples and the earth itself. And even though there is a month of summer left, a month of summer still to be enjoyed, there is going to be a moment in the next two weeks or so when I know that summer is really over. How will I know? It is a sudden change of afternoon light, the day the tall green grasses take on a golden hue, a scent on the air. How do I know? It is an instinctive reaction to the ending of one season and the beginning of another, even if the overt changes will not begin for another fortnight. Just as I have always known the ingredients in bread, so do I know the very moment when the balance tips from one season to another. I need a calendar only so far as I need a recipe; after you do it a couple times through, whether you are making bread or following the seasons, you know what you are looking for, and see it when it happens.

I don't want to rush fall and cheat summer of its precious time, nevertheless, I am anticipating all the fine doughs I will be able to make and bake again soon. Few people of my acquaintance understand how I find the time to bake so much, and fewer understand why I want to. They don't recognize the importance of making things yourself, at home, from basic materials. I find a deep, unmatched satisfaction in making things in old-fashioned ways. These things are, in my mind, inherently better. This also explains my fondness for antiques, or rather, venerable household goods of great age, fortitude, and character which desire to work and be of incomparable service. From bread pans to brooms, I want items that have proven themselves, that perform admirably under pressure, that never fail to rise to a challenge. Such are the things I love.

It is with this spirit that I love quilts and embroidered pillowcases and printed tablecloths and wool sweaters. Form meets function where the rubber hits the road: it may be beautiful but does it work? Does it work well? Does it feel good to the touch? Can it truly be improved? Is bread made with high fructose corn syrup, calcium propionate, and mono- and di-glycerides really better than bread made without? Do tell the truth.

For eons I have been encouraging people to make their own bread without the aid of a bread machine. The response to my efforts have been overwhelmingly negative, as people repeat again and again they can't do it, they don't know how, they don't have the time. It really is easy, and I have been trying to get everyone to understand just how easy it is, but the resistance is great. There is the prevailing assumption that baking bread is mysteriously difficult and inordinately time consuming, when in fact, it is neither. Baking bread is simple, and can be accomplished on your own personal schedule. If you live with someone with whom you can work, baking bread can be a relay event, as you hand off one step to another as you share the work to share the reward. (Remember the story of the little red hen?) And bread sure does smell good when it is baking! Warm bread and butter, mmmm. but I digress.

If the goal is to live as green as possible, which it is, then baking bread at home is a great step forward. In some regions you can buy flour that is both grown and milled close to home, and in other regions your grains might have to travel a little further. If something has to be shipped, let it be your flour, but make sure that it is of the highest quality and minimally processed. Be wary of flours that have been bleached and otherwise mistreated; this includes most national brands. I use King Arthur flour above all others, and am well satisfied with it. The wheat is not grown locally because it cannot be (Vermont is not well-suited to wheat fields, although some wheat is grown here), but the company that sells it is, and their standards are very high, so I rely on them for quality and integrity.

The first time you bake bread, do so with the only expectation that it will be good, which it will. It might not be beautiful the first time, although it very well might be, and it might not have the texture you desire, although it could, but in the end it will taste good, and with repeated efforts, you will soon be making all varieties of bread to nurture not only your own soul, but the souls of all the others who share your bread. And this, more than forsaking the chemical additives is the true purpose of baking bread at home: it will both comfort and liberate your soul to know that you have entered into the time honored tradition of bread baking. As I remind myself each week when I bake bread, Napoleon did not send the bread bakers to war because they were too important and their lives could not be risked. And as the varieties of bread to be baked are endless, there is ample opportunity in bread baking for your imagination to play and thereby grow and flourish with your creativity. And as you share your creations, it is my hope and desire that you will inspire others to attempt the same, for therein lays the pleasure of baking.

Needless to say, my great-grandmother never sent a fax or an email or even knew of computers. She worked with her hands and her back and never stopped creating. I have and use rugs which she made on a loom and tablecloths which she crocheted. They are sturdy and durable and beautiful and for they have her spirit in them. She was not afraid of hard work and worked hard all her life. She did not have things that were not useful, and I strive to follow her example. When I bake bread as she did, for bread baking has not changed despite the advances of technology, I know I am doing something right and good and for which there is no worthy substitute. I urge you to have confidence in your abilities as well, as there is no substitute for that either.

Everything with bread is relative. There is no set recipe that can't be made better or adapted to suit the moment. This is a basic recipe that is really a starting point for everything else you want to do.

This will make one sandwich loaf.

2 c. very warm water
(a lot of recipes get hung up on water temperature, but really it doesn't matter so much)

2 tsp yeast (or 1 envelope)

1-2 tbs sweetener
(you can use regular sugar, honey, maple syrup, whatever you like)

2-3 lbs. flour, more or less, depending
(all-purpose, bread flour, white wheat, whole wheat, whatever you like or have on hand)

2-3 tsp salt
(I tend towards a tbs because I don't like bread that tastes flat, but not everyone notices)

Pour water into a large bowl and sprinkle yeast on top. Add sweetener and wait a minute or two; the yeast should begin to look foamy (this is called proofing the yeast). Add a few handfuls of flour and the salt, and stir with your hand until mixture is smooth and gloppy. It should be quite wet but still unified in the bowl. With one hand in the flour and the other in the bowl, gradually add more flour one handful at a time, working in each addition until the dough begins to come off the sides of the bowl. When the dough is able to hold its shape somewhat but is still very soft, spread a layer flour (1/4" deep?) onto your work surface (table or countertop), and turn the dough out of the bowl and begin to gradually work the flour into the dough, sprinkling only just enough flour onto the dough to keep it from sticking to the counter. Knead the dough by pulling half of it up and folding it onto itself, turning it as you push the folded dough away from yourself. (This motion is easier to do than it is to describe.) When the dough is still soft but is no longer sticky, hold it up to the light and look closely at the surface of the dough. It should look just damp and have little "blisters" on the surface (I don't like describing it that way, but I have not yet found a better way to describe it). When it is soft but not sticky, it is ready to rise.

I don't usually bother to wash the bowl before I put the bread to rise. When I turn out the dough for kneading, I sprinkle a little flour over the sticky bits and scrape them out (just with my fingers) so that there isn't much left in the bowl. Grease the bowl (I used to use Crisco, although I am trying not to use hydrogenated shortening anymore, so butter would be fine). Gather the dough into a ball and put it into the greased bowl, and then pick it up and turn it over so that the side that first hit the bowl is now on top. This puts a thin layer of shortening or butter (whichever you have used) on the top of the dough so it doesn't dry out while it is rising.

If you are going to let is rise overnight (which makes for better flavor), cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake it. (I am looking for a suitable, green alternative to plastic wrap for this use.) If you want to bake it sooner, cover it with a woven cotton towel (not terrycloth), and set it aside until it has doubled, usually an hour or two, but you can leave it longer if it is more convenient. When you are ready to bake it (this is all about you, not the dough), whether it has been on the counter or in the fridge, grease your bread pan (I prefer glass pans so I can see the bottom of the bread to know how brown it is), and punch down the dough. Don't work it too much, but try to get the biggest air bubbles out of it. Shape it with your hands into a log or a roll that is the length of your pan, place it in the pan, and cover with your towel again. Heat your oven to 350 degrees, and let the dough rise until it reaches the edge of the pan or goes a little bit (1/2" or so) above the edge. Don't let it go too far above the edge or it will rise unevenly in the oven.

Bake the bread in the middle of the oven until it is well browned on the bottom. You are supposed to be able to tap on the top of loaf and it will sound hollow when it is done, but I have a hard time telling what sounds hollow, so I just make sure the bottom is a nice, dark golden brown. Remove it from the pan right away (it should just fall out of the pan when you turn it over) and let it cool on a rack. A cooling rack is very important for good crust. (And homemade bread is all about the crust!)

LET IT COOL TO ROOM TEMPERATURE BEFORE SLICING. I know it is tempting to cut it right away, but it won't slice well and the flavor will not have developed if you cut it too soon. As soon as it comes to room temperature, the crust will be crisp and the inside soft and moist, and it will have the best flavor. You cannot rush the cooling process. You just have to wait.

And that is it. You can use milk instead of water (I heat in the microwave for a couple minutes, just until it is hot enough to make putting my finger in it uncomfortable, but not hot enough to scald my finger). You can add a handful of dry milk to the flour which will make the bread more tender (I do this often). You can mix white and wheat flours in any proportion, depending on how you like it. You can add up to a cup of regular oats if you want, or any combination of other grains, nuts, and seeds to your liking. And there are lots of other things still that you can do, but this is the starting point.

Good luck and have fun! I LOVE making bread because it is very creative and even more forgiving. It doesn't come out bad, even if you do it wrong. The worst I have ever done was simply different from my expectations, and with enough butter on it, anything tastes good! (A toasted mistake with butter and jam isn't a bad way to start the day!) It is fine. As soon as you learn how much flour to put in (and it will be different every time), and can tell when it has been kneaded enough, you can do anything.




Copyright 2006, Sherian Valenti

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