Perhaps no food is as ancient, humble, sustaining, valued, adaptable, or taken for granted as bread. Bread is the staff of life. We break it, cast it upon waters, leave it as a trail of crumbs when pursued by witches. We eat it plain, with butter, as sandwiches, in salads, as puddings.
Bread is a cultural identifier as well: think of the Mexican tortilla, Middle Eastern pita, Jewish Challah, Irish soda bread, French baguette, Native American fry bread. We use bread to celebrate, to praise and to mourn. In Mexico, Pan de Muerto—“Bread of the Dead”—is shaped into skulls to mark the Day of the Dead.
“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” -Julia Child
When I was young, our small town grocery store offered one kind of packaged bread: sliced, white, fluffy and tasteless. Even so, my brothers and I thought it was delectable, especially toasted golden brown and topped with butter and cinnamon sugar. Sometimes we would squish it together and roll it with our fingers into firm tiny bread balls. The wonder was that an entire slice of bread was reduced to the size of a small marble.
The town bakery sold less processed loaves than the grocery stores, but the varieties were limited to white, rye and, as the 1970s ushered in a more health-conscious approach to food, the occasional whole-wheat. For many years, we were all fooled into thinking that the phrases “whole-wheat” or “multi-grain” ensured a fiber-rich, healthful alternative to white bread. Now we know that a very good white bread—made with unbleached flour and no unnecessary additives—may be a better choice than heavily processed, caramel colored “wheat” loaves.
Today when I shop for bread, I stand in awe before the choices. I can choose from honey wheat, Asiago, pesto, country rye, seven-grain, and dozens more varieties. I can buy wheat-free bread, sugar-free bread, salt-free bread, and fat-free bread. The kinds of sourdough alone are too many to remember, and new bakeries that specialize in high quality breads seem to be in every neighborhood.
To learn more about bread making, I talked to Tim Thomas, owner ofThe Panary: An Artisan Bread Shoppe, a European-style sourdough bakery in West Bend, Wisconsin. The Panary’s breads are edible works of art, made from carefully developed recipes and with simple, natural ingredients.
Tim opened The Panary when he was “downsized” after 22 years of work in the telecommunication field. Rather than look for another telecommunications job, he decided to embrace the opportunity to follow his lifelong passion: food. He says simply, “I decided to do what I want to do.” Although he hasn’t always made a living from baking, he has always “dabbled in the culinary arts.” During college he participated in an apprentice program with Chef Louis Szathmary of the famous “The Bakery” restaurant in Chicago. His interest in bread began in earnest during travels to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where he “saw many cuisines and learned a culinary vocabulary.”
Years later, the seeds of The Panary were sown when Tim made his first traditional sourdough bread: an olive rosemary loaf. Speaking of it, his blue eyes widen with child-like delight and he rises taller with excitement. “The smell was intoxicating,” he says. “From there I began experimenting, devouring, practicing with my family.” He eventually created about 25 bread recipes of his own, all using the sourdough process.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” -M. F. K. Fisher
For Tim Thomas, making bread is no less than a passion, as well as an ongoing pursuit for perfection and a synthesis of art and science. On the day I visit, he frowns at the “bloom” (decorative slashes) on the tops of some of the loaves (loaves that, to my untrained eye, looked flawless), and explains that if the bread is underproofed, the dough breaks out the sides of the loaf during baking. Each day he evaluates and modifies his baking process, based on his careful observation of the breads’ bloom, the shapes and sizes of the air holes inside the loaves, and many other factors. “It doesn’t matter to anyone else,” he says, shaking his head, “but it matters to me.”
When asked which of his breads is his favorite, he looks puzzled. “That’s hard to say. It’s like asking who is your favorite child.” He does say that he eats only the whole-wheat and rye loaves, and admits that the whole-wheat recipe has been the hardest to perfect.
Baking with rye is also a challenge, because rye flour lacks a component for proper gluten formation (making rye bread a good choice for people with gluten intolerance) and needs a strong “sour” (mixture of starter, flour and liquid that ferments overnight). The right proportions are also important. Tim uses about 60 percent rye and 40 percent wheat flour in his German rye, and he mixes the sour very stiff.
The Panary’s Whole Wheat Sourdough, Potato Bread, Peasant Bread, Olive-Rosemary and Alsatian Herb Breads all require overnight fermentation before the loaves are shaped and baked. This process reduces the breads’ acidity and, because the long fermentation is a precursor to germination, improves the nutritional value and digestibility.
Although I’ll never turn down a slice of warm, fresh-from-the-oven bread, the joy of baking bread lies more in the process than the product. There is something comforting and ritualistic in the time necessary for yeast to work, dough to rise, loaves to bake. We can artificially speed things up with quick yeast or shortened rising times, but, in the end, the product suffers. A good loaf of bread reminds us that in our culture of downsizing and outsourcing and instant results, some things in life just can’t be rushed.
The following video shows how to create artisan-style bread shapes in your very own kitchen: