I decided I wanted spanakopita this week and in the absence of any frozen phyllo, I decided to just make it myself. My go-to cook book The Joy of Cooking refuses to give a recipe, telling you instead to go buy it frozen. This should have been a red flag.
The internet had a few recipe suggestions for this dough: water, oil, flour, salt, and a dash of vinegar, rolled thin. Simple, right? Well, here are the ten lessons I learned:
Roll the dough thinner.
No, even thinner than that.
The cornstarch and flour mixture is very important to keep the sheets from sticking together.
In small amounts vinegar strengthens a dough, allowing it to retain shape or, in this case, hold together when stretched so thin.
Homemade phyllo is finicky and tedious in ways that hurt my back and neck to repeatedly roll out the sheets, even to produce sheets as thick and clumsy as mine. But it is also delicious.
Anyone who knows me know that I bake––in case the posts about ancient bread and slew of baked goods on Instagram didn’t give me a way. The recent pandemic has inspired many people, and quite possibly everyone, to start baking, creating a shock to the flour supply chain and sold many stores entirely out of yeast. I have primarily baked using a sourdough starter for a few years now, but since I have had several conversations with people in the past two days, I thought I would collect that advice here.
The creation of commercial yeast makes baking easy, but people have been baking without it for thousands of years, so there are plenty of options for anyone who wants to keep baking. Here are four tried and true replacements for commercial yeast:
1. Make unleavened flatbreads. Passover might have just passed, but you can make matzah anytime, and the best soft varieties are just an an unleavened flatbread. Similarly, you could go with Indian Roti or flour tortillas pretty easily.
2. Make soda bread. Yesterday I declared beer bread a waste of good beer, but every once in a while it goes very well with some honey or maple butter, and there is a whole world of soda breads that you can try. These breads using baking powder and/or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as its leavening agent. Too much of the leavening agent can leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and most simply aren’t to my taste, but they are an easy workaround if you don’t have yeast. Try this one for a cheddar cheese enriched soda bread from King Arthur Flour.
3. Harvest yeast from raisins. Seriously. A few years back I came across a story about a baker in France recreating the bread distributed to French soldiers during World War One. His scratch yeast came from raisins, which makes sense given both ancient precedent (Pliny the Elder mentions creating levain from millet kneaded with grape must, NH 18.26) and that the original baker’s yeast was identified on the skin of grapes. This technique is easily recreated at home; I promise that your bread will not taste like raisins unless you actually add raisins to the dough, at which point you are on your own.
4. Just make a sourdough starter. As Instagram culture and social media in general fuels all manner of anxieties surrounding people’s body and lifestyles, so too does it drive attitudes around sourdough. There are hundreds of videos about making the rustic Tartine country loaf. I know, I’ve watched them, and I still regularly fail to create the perfect loaf. My oven sucks, I don’t have the ideal dutch oven, I am notoriously ambivalent to precisely-weighing my ingredients* and yet my sourdough starters (I actually have two) still make spectacular breads without a hint of commercial yeast. My easy go-to bread is a simple sandwich loaf enriched with just a little bit of sugar and milk.
*This only holds true for breads; cookies and cakes require much more precision.
In short, the idea that you have to be “ready” for a sourdough starter is a myth, and with a little bit of care to adjust for different ratio of flour to water you can make any recipe. I’ve been known to tag Instagram posts with #sourdougheverything.
(To do this, prime the starter with water and flour to get it going ahead of time, and then add this to the recipe, adding extra flour a little at a time to reach the right dough consistency. The amount of flour will vary based on a number of factors, including how wet your starter is, how much of it you use, and the type of flour you’re using. You will need to allow more time, up to 1.5 or 2x, depending on the temperature and the starter’s activity, over what the recipe calls for with commercial yeast.)
Much as with harvesting yeast from the skin of grapes, natural leavening has been around for millenia, cultivating strains of yeast from the environment and the flour itself. The process is actually very easy––all you need is time. There are numerous guides available online and if you’re worried about harmful bacteria, use one with citrus which inhibits the growth of those strains until the good stuff can take over (grapefruit juice is the most common; I used lime).
Once the starter gets going, it is actually quite easy to maintain. I have been using two sets of the same strain cultivated in my kitchen for year, sometimes going as long as a few weeks between feedings. I keep my starters in Tupperware in the fridge taking out a small portion and building it up in preparation for each bake. When the base gets low, usually about once a week at my rate, I refresh it using a 1 cup of water and roughly 1.5 cups of flour and letting it feed for a few hours until it becomes fluffy and doubles or so in volume before it goes back into the fridge. Here are more detailed instructions.
I might be a sourdough heretic in some respects, and my instructions do not bring the starter quite to its most active the way that the instructions that call for three or four feedings in the day or so right before baking, but it is an easy way to manage a starter without discarding any of it.
My scholarly interests have recently begun to drift the way of my stomach, leading to more time spent thinking about ancient bread. About a year ago I delivered a paper at the Classical Association of the Middle-West and South annual meeting that looked at bread in the public food-scape of the Greek city, concluding, among other things, that most of the labor was done by women and non-citizens, both free and enslaved. Meanwhile the celebrated baker of Ancient Athens, credited with training a generation of bakers and introducing large bread ovens was a man named Thearion.
(The introduction to the paper is available here.)
Plato’s Gorgias (518B–518c) mentions Thearion at a point where Socrates is dismantling the idea that food can train the body for gymnastics:
As if, when being asked with regard to gymnastics who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” Equally you might be aggrieved if I were to say to you: “Sir, you know nothing about gymnastics: you speak to me of servants, providers for the appetites of human beings, but without any right and proper understanding of [those appetites], those men who first fatten and fill human bodies to great applause and then wipe away even their original flesh.
Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (3.78) includes several fragmentary references to Thearion, including a clipped section of Plato’s Gorgias that inverts Socrates’ point.
Antiphanes also recalls the Attic loaves as particularly excellent, thus in the Omphale:
How could one of good birth Be able to come out from such a chamber, Looking upon these white-bodied loaves Fill the oven close-packed in the passage And seeing them, form shapes in covered vessels Copied by Attic hands, who Thearion Trained for the common people.
[Note: I struggled to reconcile δημόταις, settling on something akin to “for the public good.”]
This is that Thearion the bread maker whom Plato recalls in the Gorgias and along with him Mithaicus, writing so: “about those who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” And thus Aristophanes in his Gerytades and Aeolosicon:
“I come, having left Thearion’s bakeshop, where is the abode of the cookwares.”
I bake a lot and although the item I am most proud of, the one that would be my technical challenge for GBBO contestants, is the bagel, the foodstuff that started the compulsive baking is pizza. For a little context, I have tried five different dough recipes and although I have settled on one that I like a lot, it is not yet perfect. But crusts, even though they are absolutely essential to the perfect pizza, are not the subject of this post, the toppings are. Or rather, some toppings are.
A little more background: I was in Minneapolis recently for family reasons and on my way out of town I stopped at Punch Pizza, a chain that fires their pizzas at exceptionally high temperatures, which gives a delicious char onto their chewy crust. Punch does not have my favorite pizzas around, but theirs are more than serviceable, especially for when I am pressed for time. Being on my own, I went with one of my favorite pizza toppings: onions. Usually when I go there I am sharing my pizza with someone who doesn’t like onions, so I this was the first time I had them at Punch. As it turns out, I was not a fan of the onions on this particular pizza and since I had an eight hour drive that followed immediately upon eating, I had ample time to think about what went wrong here.
According to Punch’s website, they fire their pizzas “in a wood-burning oven to a blistering 900 degrees,” which, as noted above, is one of the reasons I like their crust so much. The extreme temperature also cuts down on the cooking time since the toppings warm and the cheese melts quickly. And yet I found a strange thing happened: the onions I ordered were warmed up, but they did not completely cook through and caramelize the way that they frequently do on pizzas I cook at home. I still ate the pizza, of course, but I think that I will have to take into account the cooking time and temperature when choosing toppings in the future.
Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.
Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.
The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.
Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.
The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.
Some years ago, I read an internet advice column that suggested men learn how to cook and keep a stocked cupboard so as to impress ladies. The advisor, a woman, recounted how attractive it was one time when she was with a man on his couch and, upon expressing hunger, he leapt into the kitchen and prepared a spinach-artichoke dip for her. What if that man was a baker, and not a cook?
A living room where a couple lounges against each other on a couch. They’ve been drinking wine. Her stomach rumbles and he offers to make a fresh batch of pain au chocolat. What can be more romantic than a traditional, buttery, french dessert? Of course she says “yes.”
In a flash, the beau is off the couch and the through the doorway into an unseen kitchen and there is a flurry of activity, cupboard doors and drawers opening and closing, the refrigerator rumbling to life as the cool air escapes when it is opened. A puff of flour floats through the portal and the racquet of an object hammering the counter. Ten minutes later, he returns covered in flour.
Their intimate activities resume, but he is called away fifteen minutes later, but only for a few minutes this time. And again fifteen minutes after he next returns, and thirty minutes after that. Then he is called away for a longer stretch (for shaping the dough). Then they have an hour and a half together while the the treats proof, with only a momentary break for him to preheat the oven. But he’s worked himself into a lather with the constant movement and has been dusted in a bit more flour at each step so goes to take a shower.
She has taken to checking Twitter. Facebook. Texting friends. His wine glass has gone untouched since the start, she’s finished the first bottle. He jokes that perhaps he should have chosen a recipe with an overnight proof so she’d have to spend the night. She opens a second bottle.
Twenty minutes of baking, an a cool down phase and the pain au chocolat are ready to eat. Only four hours after he offered to make her a snack and impress her with his culinary mastery, and she’s fallen asleep.
There ways to make this interactive, of course, but if the goal is to show off one’s skill in the kitchen, then the lesson here is to prepare the breads in advance and start them proofing as soon as they get home. Or maybe that a baker is better suited to stable domestic life more than the vicissitudes of casual dating.
On a related point, I bet the guy in the example above used canned and bottled ingredients. If he was really that handy, he would have roasted his own artichokes.
Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.
The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.
As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.
Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.
This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.
The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.
My current apartment has 480 square inches of counter space, twenty four by twenty inches, most of which is covered a utensil basket, drying rack, and coffee grinder. To give a bit of perspective, the sink, including edges, is 552 square inches. This arrangement is problematic for cooking, but even more so for baking, which usually requires prolonged kneading.
I have a bowl. This bowl holds eight or more quarts, though, to be honest, I do not really know how large it is. The exact size isn’t actually important. It is large and fits comfortably in my lap when I sit on the floor. As a result, I have compensated for my lack of counter space with this bowl. Almost everything I make I knead in this bowl, seated on my living room floor with my iPad playing something or another on Netflix; kneading, particularly with limited motion, usually takes about an episode of a half-hour show like “Attack on Titan” or “Parks and Rec” (recent go-tos). From there I sit and I knead. From time to time I add flour from the bag at my side and after a while I cut off a slice to see if it passes the window-pane test by stretching until it forms a complete, translucent membrane. If the dough tears I adjust the water or flour levels and continue kneading.
Netflix works well for kneading because I don’t look at the dough. Almost exclusively, I knead toward a texture and a stickiness until the point of giving the dough the window-pane test. In the meantime, bread dough serves as an oversized stress ball with the promise of something delicious to come.
Another virtue of baking is that it requires patience. Bread is one of those things that cannot be rushed. It is possible to bake the bread before it has fully risen, but that cuts only a little time off the total process. The rest of the time is spent waiting. I’m not a particularly patient person, but the rewards of baking are worthwhile. It is cliche to say that the world moves too quickly and reminders to slow down are necessary parts of life, but it is nonetheless true. Baking plays this role for me and the periods when the dough rises work well for various chores and for reading (though not work), while kneading causes a practically meditative state.
Four things I like about baking, from most to least important:
Eating. Everything I bake I can eat and I do love to eat good bread products, including bagels, pizza, brioche, challah, stuffed crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls (to name a few). Without question, this is the top reason to bake bread.
Sharing. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is to make about twice as much as I am going to eat myself, and then to give the rest away to other people who like to eat.
Making. It is deeply rewarding to make something, from start to finish and get to see the final product.
The whole stress-ball thing. Seriously, it is relaxing to knead dough.