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17 Jan

Panis ex machina – I guess it’s been over a year now since we bought our breadmaker. My mother has had one for years, but even before that I remember when she used to make bread by hand. More accurately, I remember the bread dough, sitting in a large bowl and covered with a cloth, rising in front of the wood stove downstairs. Sitting down there with the lights off, the only illumination coming from the stove, was always a joy on cold winter evenings, and the rising dough was a part of that. I don’t remember the actual results of the process nearly as well, but there was something comforting and satisfying about knowing that the bread was rising beneath the cloth.

“Bread is a complex equation with a variety of interconnected variables.”

When my wife and I were looking at breadmakers online, we read a lot of the reviews that people had posted for the various machines. I quickly noticed that many of the reviews had nothing to do with any particular machine, but were instead comments on the concept of a breadmaker. There were countless variations on the general theme of “it was fun at first, but after a few uses we put it on the shelf and haven’t touched it since.”

My wife wanted to know if the same thing was going to happen if we bought a machine. I assured her that it wouldn’t. I wanted to make bread. Not that it’s impossible to find good bread in Korea, but there aren’t quite as many bakeries to go to for fresh-baked bread as there are in the States. I was tired of the one variety of sandwich bread (that is, plain white) sold at most supermarkets. I knew there was more, and I was tired of settling for less, so we bought a breadmaker.

The machine came with a decent manual that included some recipes, but most of them were basic or catered to Korean tastes with variations like mugwort bread and corn bread. It also came with a few bags of “bread mix” to which you simply added water. Despite having seen my mother make bread on numerous occasions, I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing, so I started with the bread mix. It came out well, but the bread was uninteresting. Furthermore, the process was uninteresting as well. Yeah, it was fun to watch the blade spin around and the dough rise, but it felt a bit hollow. There was no sense of accomplishment—after all, everything had been done for me.

The bread mix was cheaper than an actual loaf of bread, I think, but not by much. The only real advantage, then, was getting to see the bread being made and getting to eat it while it was still hot. It was after I made my first bread mix loaf that I realized why so many people had shelved their machines: the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Economic advantage (if there is one) is not enough to maintain interest either. You have to be pretty dedicated to the idea of making your own bread or the machine will end up gathering dust.

I suppose that sounds a bit funny, especially considering how easy it is to make bread using a machine as opposed to doing it by hand. But we live in an instant society, and bread machines are just not going to cut it when the goal is to get results for little or no work. Yes, that’s right, making decent bread in a breadmaker requires some work. Sure, you can use the bread mix or stick with the most basic of recipes, but, like I said, the novelty wears off quickly and you go back to buying your bread because it’s less of a hassle.

Giving up was never even a consideration for me, though. After the initial lackluster bread mix attempts, I decided to move on to actual recipes. My mother sent me two breadmaker cookbooks, The Bread Machine Cookbook and The Best Bagels Are Made at Home (both part of the Nitty Gritty Cookbook series). I will admit that I have not delved into the world of bagels yet, but The Bread Machine Cookbook has been an invaluable aid, at first for tried-and-true recipes, and later as a general guide and source of ideas.

That is not to say that I was successful at first. In fact, my first few recipe attempts were deflating failures. The bread was not rising at all, and I soon discovered that I needed to be using instant yeast, not the regular dry yeast I had bought. Once the yeast issue was straightened out, I started with the simpler recipes and gradually moved onto more complex breads. After a few months, I felt confident enough to strike out on my own. Using the recipes in The Bread Machine Cookbook as a basic guide, I started to create my own recipes. Some were successful, some were not, and even some of those that I considered successful (that is, the loaf rose properly and actually looked like bread) were met with lukewarm reviews by my taste testers. I persevered, though, and I’m still experimenting today.

It wasn’t until I got into the experimental phase that I realized how much fun it was to make bread. Purists will probably tell me that I haven’t really made bread because I haven’t kneaded and shaped the dough by hand, but that’s a technicality as far as I’m concerned. I could knead the dough by hand, but I appreciate the time and effort that the machine saves me. I’ve heard that kneading the dough by hand is therapeutic, and someday I do want to try it, but the real fun for me is figuring out the proper mix of ingredients to produce a successful loaf.

Bread is a complex equation with a variety of interconnected variables. There are five basic ingredients to bread: flour, yeast, liquid, sugar, and salt. The flour is the substance of the bread, the yeast makes it rise, and the other three ingredients contribute to the process—the liquid hydrates the yeast and forms the dough, the sugar feeds the yeast and allows it to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to make the dough rise, and salt controls the action of the yeast. You need to get all these variables right in order to make a proper loaf of bread.

In a way, I guess, I like making bread for the same reason that I have always liked programming: I like to solve puzzles. The most basic breads, like plain white bread, for example, are simple puzzles, and there is more margin for error. Once you start getting into more complex breads—for example, breads using flours that don’t have as much gluten as bread (or hard) flour—the puzzles become harder to solve and the margin of error narrows considerably.

My latest experiment was with rye flour, which has no gluten at all. As far as the bread-making equation goes, gluten is the most important part of the flour variable. Gluten makes the dough elastic and allows it to trap the gas produced by the yeast. Rye flour makes up almost a third of the recipe, and I also used a small amount of wholemeal flour, so to counteract the lack of gluten in these flours I added wheat gluten to the recipe. I also used honey instead of sugar (something I like to do when making my “healthy” breads), which meant adjusting the amount of liquid. I took a rough guess on the amount of water for my first attempt and was surprised when the loaf turned out perfect. It was slightly denser than a normal white loaf, of course, but it rose well.

For my next attempt, I decided to add 10 ml more water to see if I could get a little more rise out of the dough. I knew that I had overcompensated when the bread rose too quickly and too high, and sure enough the top collapsed. A collapsed top doesn’t necessarily mean a failed loaf (and for some loaves it’s even normal), but it does mean that you’ll probably have less consistency—the bread collapses after an uneven rise because larger air pockets form and the internal structure of the bread can’t hold up under its own weight. The bread still tasted good, but I realized how delicate the recipe was—delicate enough, for example, to be affected by the humidity of the weather on any given day.

Here’s the recipe that I finally ended up with (with only a few minor modifications from my first attempt). Even though it includes three and a half cups of flour, it is designed for a machine that usually takes three cups (a medium-sized machine according to the Nitty Gritty cookbook). You’ll notice that there are no caraway seeds. My wife doesn’t like caraway seeds, so I didn’t add them, and I was surprised to find that the taste I had always associated with rye bread was actually the rather strong taste of the caraway seeds. Without the caraway seeds, the taste of the rye comes through.

Rye bread

I would really like to try this recipe with molasses instead of honey (which I suppose would make it more of a pumpernickel), but I have been unsuccessful in my searches for the fabled substance. I checked the three places that I figured they would have it: CostCo, Namdaemun Market, and the Hannam Supermarket. They didn’t even know what it was at Namdaemun Market (they kept asking, “do you mean pancake syrup?”), and they didn’t have it at CostCo or Hannam. If anyone here in Korea knows where I can pick up some molasses, I would be grateful for the tip. Either that or anyone who might be planning on visiting me from the States in the near future could bring some over.

Anyway, this rye bread was fun to make because it’s so delicate. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would say that bread making is more of an art than a science. But I do know better, and I can’t stand it when someone says something is more of an art than a science, as if art and science are mutually exclusive. Take music, for example. Music is extremely scientific, based on definite mathematic principles. When a painter selects one color over another, he is relying on his knowledge of how human beings react to color—in other words, science.

I guess people say that because they associate science with rules and art with bending or breaking the rules, and thus anything that goes outside the proverbial box must therefore be more art than science. Or maybe it’s because art is supposed to be beautiful, while science is supposed to be cold and analytical. Me, I find beauty in the science of bread making. Yes, it’s also an art, but that doesn’t make it any less a science.

That’s a bit of a tangent, though, and I suppose I could wander off on that topic for quite some time. To bring this entry back to bread and wrap things up for today, though, here are two other recipes I’ve come up with. The first one is the first experimental bread I ever created, a yogurt loaf. The milk and yogurt make it very soft and a bit chewy—it’s not like a typical loaf of bread. For some reason, I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on this bread. It doesn’t really make the best toast, though. Use the light bake setting if possible.

Yogurt Bread

The second bread is a more recent invention. The “mixed cereals flour” is a combination of various grains, seeds, and nuts and has no gluten. Unlike the yogurt bread, this bread makes a pretty good toast. I enjoy it for breakfast with a generous helping of New Zealand honey, Manuka if possible.

Multigrain Walnut Bread

That’s all for today. Never fear, Liminality is not becoming a cooking site. I’ve wanted to talk a little bit about bread for a while now, and it was fun to write this entry, but I imagine I’ll get back to whatever it is that passes for normal around here next time.

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