An Ode to Bread (and a recipe…)

There is something about bread – baking bread, smelling bread, eating bread – that stirs up a particular feeling within me. While I am not an experienced breadmaker by any means, I can’t help but try, again and again, to take part in this act of measuring and kneading and waiting. M.F.K. Fisher writes, “There is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

I’ve had successes and letdowns, but in the end, each type of bread has smelled delicious, and I’ve embraced every bite. The gummy crumbs and burnt edges have taught me something about making my own bread: even if the bread might be deemed a failure by public sentiment, I personally find that I’m very forgiving of my bread’s shortcomings. I savor the slices, and when I’m finished, I wonder what I could do differently the next time I heave my bag of flour onto the countertop.

One particular failure stands out to me the most. As a lover of all things fermented, and as someone with a deep appreciation of centuries-old traditions and rituals, I tried making my own sourdough starter. I grabbed a large glass vessel, mixed up flour and water, and set it on top of my refrigerator. I kept up the daily habit of feeding it, and while I saw tiny bubbles on the surface, the starter remained stubbornly still. My sister said I looked like a witch, stirring the dough every day while obsessively measuring my flour. After days of hopefully peering into the container, I finally turned to the Internet for advice. I realized that there were hundreds of links devoted to starting and maintaining sourdough cultures, and I felt quite overwhelmed looking through the FAQ’s and group threads of concerns and advice. Sourdough bread has been around since the Ancient Egyptians – why was it so elusive and difficult for everyone to nail down?

Eventually, I detected a faintly sour odor coming off of my starter. While it hadn’t fully come alive yet, I ended up making pizza dough out of what I had that night. I’m 99% sure that what I made was not sourdough; however, the final product was covered in vegetables and leftover truffle cheese so it did not seem like too much of a catastrophe.

After that, I wanted to turn towards something a bit easier, and so I found myself browsing through challah recipes. I’m a Korean-American who has a strange obsession with Israeli cooking. I’ve never been to Israel, nor have I ever attended a Bat Mitzvah, and so I’m not sure where this love comes from. However, I soon found myself cracking eggs, measuring oil, and kneading sticky dough into a soft, slightly tacky ball. The clumsily-braided challah came out of the oven proudly, emitting a warmth and glow that had all my family members immediately zoom into the small kitchen.

The second time I made challah, I followed Molly Yeh’s twist on the classic recipe and turned it into a “scallion pancake challah.” This bread did something strange– it had the novelty of Israeli tradition, but it also possessed a taste very familiar and reminiscent of childhood. My first bite of scallion and sesame oil brought me back to memories of my family, along with ten to fifteen other family friends, clustered around a table covered by a white cloth and passing various dim sum dishes back and forth.

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Molly Yeh’s Scallion Pancake Challah

This Chinese/Jewish bread reminds me of all the breads I’ve consumed in various parts of the world. When I think of Korea, for example, I think of the pillowy and milky bread I ate as a child, bread that I couldn’t really sink my teeth into despite how hard I tried. In South Africa, somewhere in the Kalahari Desert, I shoveled down unleavened rolls that the Khoisan people had baked over an open fire. My friends and I still talk about these rolls to this day. And of course, France reminds me of perfect baguettes, and of my solo trip to Paris. My first night there, I accidentally ordered a full loaf for myself instead of getting the more sensible demi-baguette. Luckily, it ended up working out because I split the loaf with a homeless man I encountered on my walk to the Eiffel Tower. Armed with a sturdy round of goat cheese and a cheap wine, I sat down in the hazy light of the evening and watched the city celebrate the end of another day.

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Kalahari Desert – Spring 2014
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Paris – Spring 2015

Bread has helped connect me to a big world. And the act of baking bread, with all its triumphs and failures, has helped remind me of that connection. I love taking part in an activity that is composed of so many variations, an activity that is shared and celebrated by dozens and dozens of cultures.

Having said all of this, perhaps it is a bit strange for me to share a recipe for gluten-free bread (traditional breads, after all, celebrate wheat proudly and loudly). However, it was the last loaf I baked, and it stands out in my memory. It is not trying to be traditional, nor is it trying to trick you into thinking it is from a boulangerie. When I was thinking about what kind of bread to bake, I waffled between baking yeasty whole-wheat rolls, and settling for the tried-and-true Life-Changing Bread from My New Roots. I decided for a friendly in-between, Amy Chaplin’s buckwheat bread. It’s nutty, wholesome, and is lovely with mashed avocado.

This recipe is a slight adaptation from the original – I used quinoa instead of raw millet, just because it was what I had on hand.

½ cup raw buckwheat

½ cup raw quinoa

1 ½ cups filtered water

¼ cup psyllium husks

1 ¼ cups rolled oats, divided

1 tablespoon aluminum-free baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Flax, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, to top the loaf

Instructions:

Combine buckwheat and quinoa in a large bowl and cover with filtered water. Let it soak overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and lightly oil a loaf pan.

Combine water with psyllium, stir and set aside to thicken.

Rinse the soaked buckwheat and quinoa into a strainer and rinse well (the buckwheat will be slimy!). After draining, place the grains in a food processor and add oats, baking powder, salt, and oil. Add the soaked psyllium mixture and blend until completely combined.

Scoop the dough into the loaf pan and spread it out evenly. Top with seeds, and then use a knife to score the top of the loaf in diagonal slashes.

Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, and then remove and re-cut the places that you scored earlier. Return to the oven for another 40 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool completely before slicing.

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