When I was last in Pompeii, I saw a loaf of bread incinerated by the blast from Vesuvius. It was a round loaf, scored so it could be split into wedges. It looked like charcoal, but you could tell it was like today’s Italian loaves.
But not all bread is a fluffy yeasted creation with a crisp crust. According to archaeologists, the first known bread was made in Egypt about 8,000 years ago. It was more like a tortilla than a loaf.
Other evidence indicates that bread has existed in some form for more than 30,000 years. That’s when grains were domesticated and turned into flour. Logic says they probably made some form of bread with it. In fact, many grains can be used for bread—not only wheat, but also rye, amaranth, corn, barley, oats, and other grains.
But most leavened (risen) breads require at least some wheat flour or other gluten source. That’s what makes the air cells stretchy enough to hold the expanding gas that comes from yeast fermentation.
But back to tortillas. Those are classed as a bread, too, as are pitas, chapatis, lavash, and other flat versions. Cracker-type breads can be dampened to make them pliable enough to wrap around fillings. Pocket-type breads, like pita, balloon up during cooking, making the handy space inside.
Not all leavened breads started out using yeast, at least not the way we do now. Some early people used beer to make the dough rise, and others used the leftovers from fermented grapes during winemaking. Wild yeast, typically airborne, may have been the original base for sourdough.
Before the wide use of bowls, bread held the meal. (Chowder in a bread bowl is not a new thing!) In many parts of Africa, meats and vegetables are served in the middle of a large round piece of soft flatbread. Everyone sits around the table, breaking bread from the edges and using it to grab a portion for themselves.
In Ethiopia, for example, this type of bread is spongy and made from a grain called teff. At the end of the meal, everyone shares the middle of the bread, which has soaked up all the delicious sauces.
Japanese milk bread
We were in Hawaii last week, enjoying many great restaurant meals with four of our friends. One evening, we dined at the Canoe House north of Kona. The menu was pricy (the wine list included a $3,000 bottle), but the Japanese milk bread really impressed us.
Our waiter brought it to the table in a cube-shaped baking pan, tipped it over onto a plate, and released this fresh, hot creation. It was topped with a crust of butter and salt, and it had the texture of angel food cake but without the sweetness.
Expertly holding two forks, the waiter dug into the bread and pulled it apart into individual pieces. This was a new sensation for us! It was at once fluffy and salty and buttery and crunchy.
“Please ask the chef for the recipe!” we pleaded. No way. He’d perfected it and wasn’t sharing. All I could do was hunt online until I found a reasonable version on the New York Times site with a few thousand five-star reviews. I haven’t had time to make it yet, but I’m sharing it with you here.
Don’t my readers deserve it? Of course, you do!
TIP OF THE WEEK
Stop being afraid of salt. A judicious sprinkle can amp up the flavors in almost any meal.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK
This was a new one on me. See if it turns out as fluffy and delicious as the version we had at The Canoe House.
JAPANESE MILK BREAD
Makes 1 loaf
For the starter:
1/3 cup (45 grams) bread flour
1/2 cup whole milk
For the dough:
2 1/2 cups (325 grams) bread flour
1/4 cup (60 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
1 teaspoon (4 grams) salt
1/2 cup warm whole milk, plus extra for brushing on the unbaked loaf
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened at room temperature, plus extra for buttering bowls, pan, and bread
Salt for sprinkling
1. Make the starter: In a small heavy pot, whisk flour, milk, and 1/2 cup water until smooth. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, until thickened but still pourable, about 10 minutes. (It will thicken more as it cools.) The spoon will leave tracks on the bottom of the pot. Scrape into a measuring cup. Lightly cover with plastic wrap. Cool to room temperature. (Makes about 1 cup starter, enough for two recipes. Discard the extra or make two loaves. It’s too difficult to make a half-batch of starter.)
2. Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt. Mix for a few seconds, just until evenly combined.
3. Add egg, milk, and 1/2 cup starter. Turn the mixer on low speed. Knead 5 minutes.
4. Add soft butter. Knead another 10-12 minutes, until the dough is smooth, springy, and just a bit tacky.
5. Lightly butter the inside of a bowl. Lift dough out of mixer bowl, shape into a ball, and place in prepared bowl. Cover with a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 40-60 minutes.
6. Punch the dough down. Scoop it out onto a large cutting board. Using a bench scraper or a large knife, cut dough in half. Lightly form each half into a ball, cover, and let rise 15 minutes.
7. Heat oven to 350F. Generously butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt.
8. Using a rolling pin, gently roll out one dough ball into a thick oval. (By this time, the dough should be moist and no longer sticky. You probably will not need to flour the surface, but you may want to flour the pin.) First roll away from your body, then pull in, until the oval is about 12 inches long and 6 inches across.
9. Fold the top 3 inches of the oval down, then fold the bottom 3 inches of the oval up, making a rough square. Starting from the right edge of the square, roll up the dough into a fat log. Pick it up and smooth the top with your hands. Place the log in the pan, seam side down and crosswise, near one end of the pan. Repeat with the other dough ball, placing it near the other end of the pan.
10. Cover and let rest 30-40 minutes, until the dough is peeking over the edge of the pan and the logs meet in the center. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with salt. Bake on the oven’s bottom shelf until golden brown and puffed, 35-40 minutes.
11. Cool in the pan 10 minutes. Then remove to a wire rack to cool at least 1 hour. If cut too soon, the air bubbles trapped in the bread will deflate.
Note: The dough can be shaped into coils or round rolls, like pull-aparts, instead of loaves. Or paint it with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, or strawberry jam when you roll it out.
Contributed by local news sources