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Artisan bread at the Winter Market

Focaccia loaves at the Farmers Market. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

“Give us this day our daily bread”

— Matthew 6:11, Luke 11:13

Bread is known as “the staff of life” because it’s a dietary staple in much of the western world. We eat it daily — and we take it for granted. It is our oldest processed food.

In many European and Middle-Eastern cultures, “bread and salt” is a common welcome greeting, associated with hospitality and good will. Welcoming newcomers to a community with bread and salt symbolizes the ability of the newcomers to sustain themselves.

Bread is made when grain is ground into flour, then mixed with liquid (usually water) to form dough and baked. Native American tortillas are a form of bread.

Some type of baked bread product is common around the globe.

The earliest breads, made 12,000 years ago during the Stone Age, were unleavened. The first archaeological evidence for bread leavened with yeast comes from Egypt in 4,000 BC. It was ancient Greek culture that popularized bread. They imported Egyptian flour and made many types of bread, from plain wheat loaves to ones flavored with cheese, oats, sesame or poppy seeds.

Today, most bread is made from wheat and leavened with yeast. Wheat is the best grain for making bread, because it contains more gluten than other grains. Gluten (from Latin gluten, “glue”) makes dough stretch, allowing it to trap air molecules produced by yeast.

Until the 20th Century, bread loaves were mixed and shaped by hand, then baked by the professional baker or home cook. In second century Greece, bakers emerged as one of the first craftsmen. During the Middle Ages, both bakers and millers and governed by village craft guilds. Until recently, Europeans went to their neighborhood bakery each morning to buy fresh, warm breads and rolls for breakfast.

The popularity of cheap commercial sliced bread was the demise of small local bakeries. Today, most Americans buy square, pillow soft, sliced, uniform loaves wrapped in plastic that are manufactured by large industrial bakeries and sold through supermarket chains. Soon people forgot what good bread should taste like. The art of the baker with its ancestral skills was lost.

Modern technology has transformed a simple, nutrient-dense, delicious product into a tasteless ball of starch devoid of its natural, wholesome, delicious goodness. Chef Julia Child laments: “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”

A kernel of wheat, also called a wheat berry, contains 11% protein. In addition, it contains important vitamins — especially B vitamins — minerals, both soluble and insoluble fiber to aid digestion and starch or carbohydrates for energy. Whole grains are complex carbohydrates that contain the germ and bran, not just the endosperm. The nutrients in whole grains reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and constipation, as well as the risk for developing cancers of the stomach and colon.

In contrast, most commercial breads are made with highly refined bleached and bromated flour that is stripped of its vitamins and minerals and treated with a variety of softeners and preservatives. Modern mills grind grain with high speeds at temperatures up to 400 degrees F, destroying important vitamins and nutrients. In 1941 the government, in an effort to improve nutrition, moved to enrich white bread with 8 essential vitamins and minerals — attempting to restore some of what is eliminated when flour is processed. Over time, the FDA has approved 30 chemicals for addition to bread — most to extend shelf life — so today the label on a commercial loaf reads like a chemical factory.

Bur small-town bakeries making artisanal breads are experiencing resurgence. At the farmers’ market, you can buy artisanal bread products. The baker sells several types of bread, including sourdough, spelt, focaccia, and even crackers.

It is also easy to make your own bread at home. While commercial breadmaking machines (which tend to imitate pillow-soft products like those from large commercial bakeries) are available, it is really not that hard to simply make bread “from scratch.”

This “scratch” includes just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Combining different types of flour — whole wheat, unbleached, rye, buckwheat, oat — can result in a variety of flavors and textures.

Adding seeds, like sunflower or sesame, creates an even more diverse assortment of baked goods.

Here are a couple recipes to get you started if you want to try making your own bread at home.

Italian Focaccia

Loaded with herbs, fresh baked foccacia is a wonderful alternative to garlic bread.

Ingredients:

1 ¼ cups whole wheat flour

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

2 cloves garlic, crushed (about 1 teaspoon)

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 pinch ground black pepper

1 pinch turmeric

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup water

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

Directions:

In a large bowl, stir together the flours, salt, sugar, yeast, crushed garlic, herbs and black pepper. Add 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and water and stir to combine (a wooden spoon works best).

When the dough has pulled together into a ball, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Add flour as needed, and knead until smooth and elastic. Use some of the remaining oil to lightly oil a large bowl.

Place the dough in the bowl, and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm place for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Punch dough down, place on parchment paper on top of a pizza stone or baking sheet. Pat into a 1/2 inch thick rectangle. Brush top with olive oil. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and mozzarella cheese.

Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Artisan Bread

Ingredients:

3 cups warm water

1 1/2 Tablespoons yeast

1 1/2 Tablespoons salt

6 1/2 cups flour*

Directions:

Dissolve yeast in water; add salt and flour. Mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until well combined. Allow to sit, loosely covered, about 2 hours.

Sprinkle top of dough with a little flour and divide into 2 or 3 parts. Shape loaves with your hands and place on parchment paper. Let dough rest and raise 20 to 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F, and place a pizza stone or cast iron skillet to heat in the oven. If you wish, you can refrigerate part of this dough for up to 2 weeks at this point.

Carefully slide the bread with the parchment paper onto the hot pizza stone. Immediately set a pan with 1 cup of water in the oven. Bake about 40 minutes.

For a crispier bottom crust, slide the bread off the parchment paper after about 20 – 25 minutes.

*Note: experiment with various flours. For example, for rye bread, use 2 cups rye flour, 2 cups whole wheat flour, and 2 1/2 cups of unbleached flour. I sometimes like to add buckwheat flour; this has a strong flavor so I rarely add more than a cup, but I love the variety.