Thursday, January 31, 2008

White Bread

It is funny how the phrase "white bread" is advanced as something of an insult suggesting bland, tasteless and uninteresting. Since a bit before Christmas I have been succumbing to the temptations of white bread (better than many other temptations) and have become ever more conscious of what misconceptions are built into this insult.

White bread is the essence of simplicity -- white flour, yeast (perhaps a sourdough starter), salt, sugar (maybe honey) and water. Oh yes, time and heat are also essential ingredients and I expect it is the shortage of the former in the modern world that actually makes it hard to find homemade bread that often. The ingredients are easily available and while the flour will usually not be local it is hardly exotic.

Out of these few ingredients there are a multitude of beautiful sensations. The first -- if you are lucky enough to have a baker in your home -- is the smell. The smell of freshly baked white bread is irresistible. It fills a house with the smell of sweetness and warmth and if we scratch beneath it, it is likely the Platonic ideal of the smell of home, or at least the smell of a happy home.

Next is the look and the texture of the outside. White bread -- whether baked in baguettes or in ordinary loaves -- has a wonderful varied brown colour that embodies the look of "cooked". When you are struggling through cooking a roast, a chicken or even some vegetarian (god forbid) dish and want a perfect outside crust on it, guaranteed that what your mind is using as a standard is the colour that is on the top of a perfectly baked loaf of bread. In addition there is the sensation that comes from the crispness of the outside combined with the softness of the overall structure which evokes the concept of perfectly hidden treasure -- you have to work a bit to get to the reward: but not too much.

Finally there is the interior of the bread itself and its taste. If well made that taste -- both the flavour and the texture -- is the taste of comfort. It pleases without testing. It is welcoming of other flavours or it has rewards that come from eating it alone or, perhaps, with a swipe of cold butter. It is good warm out of the oven (don't cut too quickly though -- you will ruin the crumb), or cold, or toasted. It is forgiving in a way other dishes are not and will bend to your taste and your mood. It is in this last way that it dramatically differs from the other breads that are out there -- ryes, whole wheats, pumpernickels and so forth all have their charms but they are choosy about how they are served and who their companions are. They are good choices when you want the challenge -- but they keep you on your toes.

There is one aspect of bread which is only enjoyed by the baker -- there is little as satisfying the world of cooking as making bread. Simple ingredients -- yes -- but demanding technique which carries with it the therapeutic experience of kneading. There are many things to get just right in order to have the bread come out just so and those things are learned by experience (as I learned when I discovered that boiling water kills yeast -- and unleaved bread made from an ordinary recipe is very unsatisfying) or by careful guidance from another. I still have my grandmother's old recipes, her notes and her hints about how to make white bread of various sorts. At the end the simplicity of white bread belies and hides the effort, technique and care that has to go into making it just so.

White bread -- an insult? Indeed.

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1 comment:

Die said...

Beautifully written piece, Robert.

Methinks thou dost protest too much with all this dissing of veggie food. Rumour has it that you once succumbed to a heaping portion of Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest...