For a nation that produces the worst of breads in huge quantities, we take it very seriously. It's our one category of food that staggers under an adjective as ponderous as "honest" . . . an honest loaf.
You know what that should be--rough in all its purity, a challenge to the teeth.
And how we tackle controversial minutia. Should sourdough starter become a family treasure or should it be prepared fresh every time bread is made? Home bakers look for the right flour, their faces set in judgment and surrounded by a halo of integrity. Some of them get downright lyrical about the joys of kneading.
Any way you regard it, making good bread is a responsibility.
A baker in San Francisco who got a little too flip one day created a moral dilemma for himself. Since it was spring, he put a little food coloring into some batches of white bread . . . nothing too gaudy, just a little pink, some lavender, a touch of green. It was done in the same exuberant spirit that had led him to tint his white cake to match the bridesmaids' dresses.
The pastel bread was an instant hit. Imagine those towering sandwich loaves with the ham salad and egg salad and tuna salad separated by slices of airy lavender, or watercress on crustless pink bread to serve with fruit salad.
But its very success depressed him, and finally he stopped tinting . . . even in the face of rising profits. An honest loaf, he decided, was not to be mocked.
Yeast seems to be a sobering ingredient. When baking powder is used for leavening, we're off the hook and can respond to the more playful sides of our nature. Think of the bread basket in some American restaurants with the gingerbread crumbling over the corn bread crumbling over the baking powder biscuits. There is no end to the biscuit variations.
You can have the best of both bread worlds. There is a category of inventive yeast bread seldom taken seriously. In fact, in books its recipes are usually hidden in the back.
Sometimes it is called "batter bread", or "casserole bread," and the most thick-skinned cook can't help but hear the deprecation in the phrase. It is whipped up like a cake, left to rise, scraped into a pan and allowed to rise again. The ratio of liquid to flour seems to be similar to kneaded loaves; the main difference (an erudite bread baker may have a long list) is a less velvety crumb.
It's a fair price to pay for speed. If the day is warm enough and the atmosphere light, you can go from mixing bowl to table in less than two hours. The second rising is very quick.
And the dough's insouciance gives the cook a chance to experiment with wild and crazy things in the kitchen. The cheese bread with peppers evolved from an overabundance of canned jalapenos, which lose authority if not used soon. The brioche bread could be done with half whole-wheat flour and a half cup of toasted sesame seeds. And how about 40 cloves of saute'ed garlic to replace the onion?
CHEESE BREAD WITH HOT PEPPERS (Makes 1 loaf) 1 1/2 cups warm water 1 envelope dry yeast 1 tablespoon sugar 2 teaspoons salt 2 1/2 cups unsifted unbleached flour 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar 2 jalapeno peppers, canned or pickled, finely chopped, about 2 tablespoons
Place 1/2 cup warm water in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle on the yeast. Set aside to soften for about 5 minutes. Add sugar, the rest of the water, salt, 1 1/2 cups flour, cornmeal and the cheese and beat with an electric mixer for 3 minutes. With a large wooden spoon, stir in the remaining cup of flour and the chopped peppers. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise until doubled or more in bulk. Generously grease a 9-by-5 inch loaf pan. Scrape the dough into the pan and let rise again until it reaches the top. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the bread for 45 minutes. Turn out of the pan onto a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Cut in thick slices and serve immediately. Or eat cold. Or reheat the entire loaf for 10 minutes in a 300-degree oven.
LARGE BRIOCHE RING (Makes 1 ring) 1 cup milk 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 stick butter 1 envelope dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 3 eggs 4 1/4 cups sifted unbleached flour
In a small saucepan, heat the milk, sugar, salt and butter until butter is melted. Cool to lukewarm. In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast and warm water, stirring until the yeast dissolves. Add cooled milk mixture. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the flour until well blended and then beat vigorously until the dough is shiny and elastic. This dough is liquid enough to be beaten without a dough hook. If your mixer complains, do the best you can with a wooden spoon. Scrape the bowl down, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Stir down and scrape the dough into a well greased 10-inch tube pan. Let rise again until the dough comes to the top of the pan. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Turn out the pan, cool 5 minutes and cut in thick wedges to serve immediately. Toast leftovers and serve with strawberry jam.
BROWNED ONION SQUARES (Makes 15 large squares) 1/4 cup warm water 1 envelope dry yeast 1 cup scalded milk, cooled 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup vegetable oil 2 1/2 cups unsifted, unbleached flour 2 large onions 2 tablespoons butter 1 large egg 1/2 cup sour cream
Place warm water in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Set aside to soften. Add milk, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, sugar, oil and 1 1/2 cups flour and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and elastic. Stir in the remaining cup of flour, scrape down the sides of the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a warm place to double, or more than double in bulk.
Halve the onions lengthwise and cut in crosswise thin slices. Heat butter in a skillet and brown the onions over moderate heat, stirring often until they are quite dark. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cool before using, which is essential. Any really hot ingredient kills the yeast in the dough. Beat egg and sour cream until smooth. Generously grease a 9-by-13 inch baking pan.
When dough has risen, scrape it into the prepared pan and pull and push until it covers the bottom area. Allow to rise until double in bulk or more. Carefully arrange the browned onions evenly over the raised dough and nap with the sour cream mixture. Bake in a 375-degree oven until puffed and brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove immediately from the pan to a cooling rack and allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting into rectangles to serve warm. May be reheated in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes.