Finding an ecological sacrament at the bakery

November 19, 2018

Edward Espe Brown came of age in the time of The Whole Earth Catalog, Diet for a Small Planet, and bulk natural food stores. He learned to bake bread at the Tassajara Zen Center near Monterey, California. Three quarters of a million hippie environmentalists learned to bake from his Tassajara Bread Book. Following his instructions is an ecological sacrament.


Even before Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” bread must have been sacramental. At Passover, it remains unleavened in remembrance of the Israelites’ flight to Egypt, when there wasn’t time for bread to rise.


Bread is how we integrate with the world around us, feeding our cells carbohydrates, protein, the right kind of fat, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients. It’s made from the seeds of one of the first plants our species tamed, ground and made into paste with water and oil, seasoned with salt, sweetened with a smidgeon of honey from Apis mellifera, the western honeybee.


Bakers enlist the cooperation of another species, the fungus Saccharomyces cervisiae, to blow carbon dioxide into thousands of sticky, stretchy, gluten balloons, making the loaves bigger and the bread softer.


Gluten doesn’t exist in dry flour. It appears when two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, combine as the baker wets and kneads wheat flour.


The Tassajara recipe begins with six cups of water warmed to between 90° and 105°. Baking is a sensuous process, and the water should feel neither cool nor warm on your skin. If it’s cool, the yeast won’t do its job; if it’s warm, the yeast will become hyperactive and exhaust itself. Saccharomyces is eating the honey, turning the sugar into CO₂ and alcohol. Add a couple tablespoons of yeast and honey and let it soften. The gravelly-looking dried yeast will get a little paler and form a pillowy layer. The scent is sour, but not strong or unpleasant.


Gradually fold in—don’t stir—enough flour to make batter. You want to incorporate air for the yeast without tearing the gluten. This is called the “sponge.” Put it in a warm place, with a wet towel over it, to rise for about an hour, then sprinkle a little salt on top. Yeast doesn’t like salt, so you gave it a head start before adding something that slows it down.


Pour half a cup of oil on top, and begin adding flour, a cup or less at a time. Fold the flour in slowly, turning the bowl a quarter turn at time, and slipping your spoon between the dough and the bowl. Pay attention to how the dough sticks to the side of the bowl. When it doesn’t stick, dump it onto a floured surface for kneading.


Add the scraps of dough that cling to the bowl. Wash and dry your bowl. Dust the top of the dough with flour and flour your hands. Fold the far edge of the dough back towards yourself. Push down and forward with the heels of both hands. Rotate the dough a quarter turn, fold, and push again. And again. Add flour to keep the dough sliding freely on your work surface.


Oil your bowl. Put the dough in the bowl, smooth side down, and push it around to get it oiled. Turn it over so that the folds and scraps are on the bottom. The oil keeps the surface from drying while the dough rises again.


When the dough has risen, push your fist firmly into it, without tearing it, about 30 times. Cover it and let it rise again until it’s twice as big. Roll the dough out of the bowl. If it’s sticky, flour your work surface lightly. You’ll want to pinch folds together, and flour makes this harder.


Preheat your oven to 350°. Shape the dough into a ball by folding the rough side towards the center, without kneading. Cut the ball into quarters and shape them into balls. Let them sit for five minutes, then knead each one, one-handed, five times.


Shape the balls into logs, with the seam on the bottom. Flatten and square them, then turn them over and pinch the seams together. Oil your bread pans and put the loaves in, seam-side up, then down. Let the loaves rise, covered, for 15-25 minutes, until they are flush with the pan tops.


Score the tops half an inch deep, then bake at 350° for 50-70 minutes. Loaves are done when they are golden brown and make a hollow sound when you thump them with a finger. Take them out of their pans right away.


There are much less time-consuming bread recipes, and I usually buy bread these days, but occasionally making the staff of life as a sacrament reminds me that I’m part of nature, and owe my life to it.

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