…on bread and food writing

Looking back now, I realise that my adoration of the marriage between food and writing has deep roots.  I have always been a reader and a writer.  I ploughed my way through the Little House on the Prairie series at a young age; on the playground I could not be found playing dodgeball – I was huddled on the steps of the school writing my first novel in a binder full of loose leaf paper.

As a teen, I discovered the wonder of books with recipes included.  These novels were often written in the style of magic realism, where the author creates a world that is mostly like reality, but with a few touches of the surreal involved.  Gail Anderson Dargatz, Alice Hoffman, and perhaps most famously, Gabriel Garcia Marquez embody this style of writing.  Somehow, in magic realism, there is always something brewing in the kitchen.  Perhaps it’s a roast chicken known to mend broken hearts, or a loaf of bread that, when baked at midnight, will ensure your lover’s safe return.  It’s a romantic, fantastical way to think about the world.

Reading about what a character eats and then having the recipe for the food makes a novel come alive, blurring the lines between one’s own reality and that of the book.  It was upon reading this recipe for Neil’s Harbour bread in an old cookbook of my mother’s that I realised that the effect could work both ways:  bringing a little bit of context into the description of a recipe could make it jump from the page.  You could picture someone else stirring together ingredients, or, in the best recipes, imagine yourself doing the same.  In the original version of this recipe, the author suggests that the ten minutes that it takes to proof the yeast is just enough time to have a cup of tea.

It’s a simple suggestion, and yet indelible in my mind.  For me, it transforms this recipe from words on a page into a fantasy about an entire lifestyle where I bake fresh bread several times a week, sitting in my sunny kitchen with a cup of hot tea and perhaps a crossword, waiting until the next phase of baking.  My house always wafts a yeasty warmth, and there is fresh bread and tea served to everyone who stops by.

In current cookbooks and food blogs, many of the recipes include a little story about their origin.  I guess chefs and authors have caught on to the appeal of storytelling about food.  In honour of that, here’s the bread recipe that inspired it all.

Here’s what you need:

 2 packages/tablespoons traditional yeast

1 tsp + 1/2 cup white sugar

3 cups warm water

1 heaping tsp salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use olive oil)

9 cups bread flour

Here’s what you do:

In a bowl, dissolve one teaspoon of sugar in a cup of warm water.  Sprinkle two tablespoons of yeast over the water and let it sit (or, proof) for ten minutes (this is where you can make your cup of tea).

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Once the yeast has proofed (it should look foamy after ten minutes), add in the rest of the sugar, water, salt and vegetable oil.  Now add about half the flour and stir until your arms ache.  Take a sip of your tea and stir it again.  This helps to develop the gluten in the flour, which makes for a nice fluffy, soft bread.

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You’ll know the gluten is developed when the dough starts to look elastic-y, like this.

Add the rest of the flour and stir until the dough is formed enough to turn out onto a lightly floured counter for kneading.  Knead the dough for at least ten minutes, until the dough is one cohesive unit and starts  firming up enough to “resist” your kneading a little.  Place the dough in a lightly floured bowl, cover with a tea towel and set in a warm, draft-free place to rise.

Once the dough has doubled in volume (usually 1-1.5 hours, but this depends on the warmth/humidity etc. of the location in which it rose), punch it down, and divide into two loaves.  Place the loaves in lightly greased loaf pans and cover with the tea towel again, letting the bread rise for another hour, or until, well, until the loaves are about the size you want them to be.

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Preheat your oven to 325F and after the second rising, bake bread for 25-30 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the centre of the loaf reads 180F.

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Note: if you want to make whole wheat bread, be sure to use whole wheat bread flour.  Also, to ensure your loaf has good loft, you may consider adding 1 tablespoon of gluten flour (available at Bulk Barn) for each cup of whole wheat flour. 

Recipe adapted from a Canadian cookbook of my mother’s!

12 comments on “…on bread and food writing

  1. I may not be a foodie, but I totally get what you’re saying about how books live in an embodied way in our lives, and I so get how recipes are particularly special in this regard. Lovely post, I would enjoy reading a longer article on this topic! Also, your first paragraph brought this book to mind that is currently on my wishlist: http://www.amazon.com/The-Little-House-Cookbook-Frontier/dp/0064460908/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357135106&sr=8-1&keywords=little+house+on+the+prairie+cookbook

  2. I love to cook, but I have always steered way clear of bread. It was intimidating, time consuming, seemed difficult to master and I don’t have the time to devote to trial runs. Jess, after reading this, you make it seem simple and the lure that maybe I could indulge in a peaceful glass of tea (yeah right, but you give me hope that maybe one day). I think my family might find themselves eating fresh bread with their pea soup tonight for dinner.

    • Ooh, I’m glad, Robyn! Heheh, I know what you mean about the tea, but actually there’s enough “waiting” time while making this bread, and the workload itself is small enough that you can totally do it between naps and chasing after wayward babies.

      Ada learned to furniture walk and shake her head “no” this week…so I’m totally there with you!

  3. Awesome Jess, I loved reading this post, you paint such a lovely picture! I’m going to try this recipe out for sure and I can’t wait to read the next one!

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