Now that we have more time at home, for the worst reasons though, we must at least spend it in a creative and fun way. Let’s read, cook, feel that our life goes on, hardly, but it goes on!
So, back to basics, let’s leave aside for a moment our favourite desserts and bake awesome homemade bread to accompany our food and warm our hearts! At the same time, we will learn the history of bread and look for old photos of Greek neighborhood bakeries that bring nostalgic memories… Finally, as remorseless nerds, we will also uncover the professional secrets of making good bread!
We will start with our recipe for fragrant homemade bread, in two versions, one with olives and sesame seeds and one with sun-dried tomatoes and oregano. Don’t leave after that, as a short trip in time follows, with stops in the prehistoric period, Antiquity and Greek neighborhood bakeries of modern times, along with professional secrets for the right bread making. So, get ready to knead!
Homemade bread with olives and sun-dried tomatoes
Ingredients for the homemade bread
|Bread flour||1 kilo|
|Water (lukewarm)||650 ml|
|Instant dry yeast||12 gr|
|Olive oil||1 tbs|
|Sugar||1 pinch (2-3 gr)|
|Sesame seeds||1 tbs|
*The quantities of olives and sun-dried tomatoes are just to give aroma to our bread. If you want more flavor, just add more!
How to make the homemade bread
In a small bowl pour the yeast with the sugar and 100 ml of the lukewar water. Stir well with a hand whisk to dissolve the yeast.
In a large bowl combine the flour with the salt and the olive oil. Add the yeast and one third of the water and mix. As soon as the water is absorbed, add the rest of the water in two portions and start kneading.
Knead, fold and turn, knead, fold and turn, at first with your palms and then with your fists, turning the bowl around. Towards the end, when your dough has been shaped, gather what has been left on the sides of the bowl, flip the dough upside down, knead, flip again, knead again. The kneading took as approximately ten minutes.
Dust your dough with some flour so that it doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a slightly wet towel, closing it airtight. Leave it to rise for two hours at room temperature, until it has doubled in volume.
When your dough has risen and doubled in volume, press it with your fist to deflate. Now it is time to add the extra ingredients. Divide the dough in half and add to the first half olives cut in quarters and to the second half chopped sun-dried tomatoes. For the ingredients to evenly spread in the dough, stretch it so that it becomes wide, spread the ingredients all over, and then fold and knead, making consecutive foldings for around two minutes. Form a boule with each half, place them on a tray with parchment paper and let them rise for one hour in a turned-off oven.
When your boules have doubled in volume, moisten their surface with some olive oil mixed with water. Sprinkle the boule with the olives with sesame seeds and the boule with the sun-dried tomatoes with oregano. Finally, score the doughs, making a cross with a knife, not too deep (0,5-1 centimeter deep) for blessing, for the dough to rise evenly during baking, without cracking on the surface and to have a correct crust consistency.
Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C for 35-40 minutes. When your boules are ready, let them uncover to cool well and then cut nice slices and accompany your food, spread whatever you like on them or just eat them right away!
While waiting for our boules to bake and cool well, it is a great opportunity to learn some things about the history of bread and its right preparation!
The history of bread begins a long time ago, in Neolithic period (10000-4000 BC). According to the book Advanced Bread and Pastry (2009) written by Michael Suas, the prehistoric man used to feed on hunted meat, nuts, fruit and cereals -rye, spelt, millet and wheat. He would prepare a simple porridge with cereals boiled in water, which is consider to be primitive bread’s ancestor.
Later on, the evolution of societies and technology brought new dietary habits. The initial porridge was now baked on hot stone slabs or coals to create a flatbread that was easy to carry and would last longer. Those cereal preparations were a basic part of the Neolithic diet, since they contained nutrients people didn’t get from meat. In this period, the first clay vessels, mills and ovens were invented. This was an important technological evolution that made the development of bread making possible.
In the epoch of Classic Antiquity (5500 BC-300 AD) the Greeks and Egyptians were the first ones to develop the art of bread making. Since 4000 BC the Egyptians were cultivating spelt, wheat and barley for domestic production of bread, pastry and beer and for exporting to Greece. The type of bread people ate was related to the class they belonged to: the rich ate white bread, the middle classes a combination of white and wholegrain, and the poor wholegrain and spelt breads. From hieroglyphics we learn that the Egyptians used to knead bread with their hands, and in large quantities with their feet!
As for Ancient Greece, the historian Athenaus records 72 kinds of bread! In his book The Deipnosophists he quotes a description from a letter of Lynceus the Samian to Diagoras, in which he compares dinners in Rhodes and Athens. There he mentions that the Rhodians serve at the beginning and in the middle of a dinner loaves that aren’t inferior to the athenian ones and at the end they present the best one, a hearth loaf, made with sweet ingredients and very soft.
According to Michael Suas, the evolution of technology in Ancient Greece -with wood ovens and mills that grinded different sizes of grains- contributed to this variety of bread products.
In addition, the variety of ingredients, cereals, nuts, herbs, oils and fruits respectively gave various flavors. Bakery evolved so much, that special occasion breads were also created, such as a conical loaf covered in cumin seeds for religious celebrations. In Paul Freedman’s book The history of taste (2007) we also read that the Ancient Greeks possibly used to fill breads with cheese, raisins and nuts. Also, they often used bread as a dish on which they placed meat or fish. With all these evolutions, the use of cereals from being food for survival ended up becoming a sign of civilization and gastronomic innovation.
Yeast, as Michael Suas describes, started being used in bread making around 1500 B.C. There are two theories about its invention. The first -and most possible- one says that the Egyptians used beer instead of water in bread making and the second one that a forgotten piece of dough got inhibited by ambient yeast and afterwards baked.
Now we will make a chronological jump in our trip in time and we will go to Greece in the 21st century to talk about the neighborhood bakery shop. The next best thing to our homemade bread is the fresh, kneaded bread of bakeries that operate in a traditional way despite the difficulties.
In a speech of the Spartian baker, president of the Laconia Bakers Association and member of the Bakers Union of Greece Nikos Mazis, awarded with the Quality Award of Gastronomos magazine, we heard about the importance of bread and the neighborhood bakery for the Greek society.
Mr. Mazis made a short historical introduction, saying that in the old times bakers that only made bread using preferment would suffer because the fermentation was very slow. With the discovery of beer yeast by Louis Pasteur and its evolution by the Austrians and Germans in the second half of the 19th century came a great revolution in bread making, as bread now needed maximum 45 minutes, instead of three hours, to rise. However, this diminished the aromas of cereals. Today, thanks to new methods and their combination with traditional ones, those aromas have returned to bakeries’ breads, which are prepared with yeast and preferment or just preferment.
For Mr. Mazis the neighborhood bakery is under attack today, from many aspects, such as the frozen doughs that are available in the market. Greek bakers, on the contrary, bake their breads with care and love, and resist with their quality and healthy products. Bread is tied with our tradition, religion and history. The neighborhood bakery is a “reference point” to which people traditionally come to buy bread and discuss their worries and problems, and it must not disappear.
Mr. Mazis showed a boule, a rounded bread, that in Greek tradition symbolises the course of life from a man’s birth to his death. He noted that in the times of Ottoman Rule, the Ottomans had borrowed from France the shape of the baguette, which was created in Napoleon times to be easily eaten by French soldiers, and transformed it into the loaf shape. However, they had forbidden its consumption by the enslaved peoples. So, the Greeks ate boules.
Finally, Mr. Mazis highlighted that in Greece the profession of the baker is linked to Orthodox Faith, with various breads and pastry that are offered in religious celebrations and are blessed by priests, such as fanouropita.
The neighborhood bakery had another very important operation, baking the Sunday roast for the family table. Housewives would bring their baking pans very early in the morning and the baker had to remember them all so that he knows whose is which. The neighborhood bakery would also bake many festive dishes, for Christmas, Easter and other holidays.
Now that we have enriched our knowledge about bread, let’s see some secrets about its right preparation. We will of course search our favourite professional books, because as we said we are nerds! We found some very important information in the book Advanced Bread and Pastry (2009) by Michael Suas:
- Preferment: The traditional way of making bread is using preferment. A portion of dough is being fermented with natural yeast (or sourdough or preferment, a symbiotic culture of microorganisms). When it has matured, it is added to the final dough. The use of preferment makes bread’s appearance and taste better and elongates shelf life.
- First fermentation: Next goes the first fermentation stage. During kneading, gluten (protein group in flour) develops or in other words the dough structure forms. Four factors play a significant role: the right weighing of ingredients, the right temperature of the water, the right incorporation of ingredients and the right kneading. After kneading, the dough is left to rise as a total mass. This stage lets the yeast’s benefits, such as flavor and dough strength, develop. The yeast produces gas that get trapped inside the dough. This gas create the final volume and texture of the bread.
- Intermediate fermentation: When the final dough has adequately developed, it is divided in portions (e.g. round or rectangular pieces of dough) having in mind the final shapes of the bread. The division must be carefully done, so that gluten structure that has been formed in the dough doesn’t break. The formed dough portions are left to rest, so that the gluten bonds relax. This way the final shaping becomes easier. The dough must be covered so that it doesn’t dry.
- Final fermentation: As soon as the dough has developed enough, it is shaped into its final shapes. During this stage the yeast gas will concentrate and apply pressure to the gluten structures. Gluten can stretch without losing its structure and thus it creates a bread with volume and correct texture. The dough, while left to rise, must be protected against drying again.
- Baking: Finally, the dough pieces are scored and get into the oven. Before baking though, they must have risen correctly. A way to know that is to press the dough with our finger. If it has risen right, it will spring back leaving only a small indent after removing the finger. If a hole is left, this means that the dough has risen too much. There are three reasons for scoring the dough: for a nice appearance, to rise more during baking and to rise evenly. Then, the shaped doughs get into the oven. To know when they are ready, experienced bakers knock on the bread’s bottom. If they hear a hollow sound, then the breads are ready. Also, it is important that bread cools well after baking.
So, now you’ve learned everything! Bake your own bread and enjoy it at home, with patience and optimism… Get on kneading!
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