“Italians just want to welcome people by sharing what they have, however simple, in abundance. An Italian’s role in life is to feed people. A lot. We can’t help it.” —Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Italy, Food and Stories
One of my earliest memories is of my mother making bread, her mixing the ingredients, kneading it, and forming it later into dome-shaped buns. I loved the yeasty tang of the raw dough she sometimes allowed me to taste before baking, and how the bread’s aroma filled the house while cooking and as she pulled the golden-brown loaves from the oven.
When living in Turkey, bread was available from the local bakery fresh every day. Buying two loves was requisite, as with a loaf of warm bread in hand on a cold day and its beckoning aroma rising from the loaf, it was nearly impossible to get home without eating a portion of what was supposed to be available for the next day’s meals. Walking to work in the morning while living in Izimir, loaves of bread could be found in bags tied to the people’s front door so that those who didn’t have enough, could be sure to get their daily bread.
Bread baking is an ancient art. As Theresa Machemer describes in her recent article in the Smithonian, “The World’s Oldest Bread is Rising Again,” bread was made in ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago. Recently, yeast spores from Egyptian artifacts have been brought to life again to make bread, and it’s reported to be delicious.
The perfect combination of flavor, crumb, and crust is what a baker looks for when making bread. At the Bread Library in Belgium, people are collecting sourdoughs from around the world and explore various techniques of making breads with sourdoughs. You can get a virtual tour of people’s breadmaking expertise in a variety of countries here.
San Francisco is famous for its sourdough bread, began when spunky little critters of wild yeast got inside miners’ bread starter and began fermentation. Wild yeast naturally finds its way into your bread when you leave the starter out on the counter. When Italians immigrated to America, some brought with them their bigas, their bread starters. Their bigas imbued with yeast from their home locations fused with the yeasts found in the areas they settled in. The bread the immigrants made was thus a fusion of the old world and and the new.
At my house, we’re experimenting with cooking various foods mentioned in my book, A Space Between, with the intention of sharing recipes. Naturally, bread is one of those recipes, as it is a basic food. While we were living in London several years back, my husband began his starter. Each time he bakes bread, he sets his starter out on the counter for a few hours. When the grapes start coming on the vine this summer, he plans to set the starter out beneath the arbor to collect some of the wild yeast. This is how you can begin your starter.
½ cup wheat
½ cup white flour
Water enough to make a thick batter, added a little at a time.
- Place in a quart jar on the counter. Cover it with a cheese cloth and place a rubber band around the jar’s opening.
- One day later mix a small quantity of flour and water and feed the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
- On day three feed the starter again the same way. By the end of the third day you should see bubbles in the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
- On the fourth day, remove some of the starter from the jar and feed the starter again. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
- Save what was removed and place it in a small container. Place this in the refrigerator.
- Feed the starter again on the fifth day.
- Next day, make bread using one cup of the starter.
- Every time you take starter out to make bread (or pancakes or muffins,) feed the starter an amount equal to what you took out.
- When baking bread, use what you need, feed the starter again, leave it out on the counter for a couple of hours and put the lid back on the jars. Then, place them in the refrigerator.
As I write, a loaf of walnut rosemary bread with parmesan crust just came out of the oven. My husband, Michael, loves cooking and loves sharing food with others. He has coached a number of people through getting their starters going and making their first loaves of bread. Bread making is less of a science and more of an art, he says. You learn to make it with your hands and heart, through observation and taste.
Below is Michael’s recipe.
What I do is I fed the starter the day before (this is key to having your starter really active), then the next day I put 2 cups of the starter into a bowl with a cup of flour and a little bit of beer and stir until smooth like heavy pancake batter. The beer is a medium heavy amber that I made, and I usually save the bottom of the bottle to do bread (It’s kind of like putting a little sugar in the dough which you could do instead.)
- Feeding the starter. The day before makes the yeast in your starter really active and this really helps. I let that sit in the bowl with saran wrap over it for three or four hours until it gets really active just like when you feed it; it usually doubles + in volume. I have started doing this at mid-day now, so it peaks just after dinner or a bit later.
- At this point I mix in another 2 cups of flour and a bit more water and salt to taste. I sometimes add a bit of organic cider vinegar too, but not always. You do want the dough to be a bit sticky as bread dough goes.
- Once the dough is mixed up, knead it for a fairly short time (2-3 min.) on a floured surface and put it into a heavy pan that has been greased and floured like you are baking a cake. (I have been doing this step without flour using my bread scraper and just folding and folding.) Lately, I’m baking the bread in a triple wall stainless steel bowl inside my Dutch oven which adds steam without putting an extra pan of water in the oven. I put the bowl of dough into the refrigerator overnight to rise, covered tightly with saran wrap so the sourdough can do its work.
- The next morning the dough will be at the top of the bowl. I sometimes let it warm up and rise a bit more depending on how the overnight rise has been. I preheat the oven to 460 degrees then turn it down to 415 for the last 15 minutes (but last time I tried 500 then turned it down to 450 for the last 15 min and liked the crust with the hotter oven.)
- Once it hits temperature, I slit the dough with a sharp knife (some say use a razor blade) and carefully put the stainless-steel bowl with the dough into the castiron pot with the lid on for 30 minutes. I don’t preheat the Dutch oven because it’s only a matter of time working with a 500-degree piece of cast iron that you are going to burn yourself! I take the lid off for another 15 minutes more to brown up the crust. I leave the bread in the oven after I turn it off with the door open so the crust gets nice and crispy as the oven cools down. The tough part is waiting for the bread to cool down so you can try it. I’ve used this with the four variations of flour, and it comes out every time!
- When I feed the starters, I usually have to pour some off, so it doesn’t overflow. I make pancakes or muffins from that occasionally.
- Placing the bread on its side like this while it cools keeps the cut portion of the bread from drying out.
Making bread is a way to connect us not only to ancient cultures and to foods that have nurtured us for millennia, but a way to physically connect with the relationships that create the fabric of living. In my life, as is true for many, bread connects us to the community of others we sit at a table with, those whose lives we share and give ourselves to. In whatever form, whether steam buns made from rice flour, a grandmother’s rye, or sourdough, to break and eat bread together is to participate in a communal experience.
In participating in these shared experiences of living, we create relationships that reach beyond time.
She held me in her arms
like stone. She was rock
and everything about her
except for the fact that
every movement she
made was bent toward
around. I was the small
pebble in her palm, the one
she rubbed against
She set the model before me,
but she was the rock I shaped
my life from. Today, her life
to gravel, when I lean to kiss
her good night. I tell her
“I love you,” and she holds
me firm, repeating one
of her two remaining sentences,
“We really do need our cereal,”
as if to mean “I love you.”
She won’t let go.
I hold her in my arms, rocks
in my throat. She knows
the foundation she has
The flint hidden in her
but this: The bread of life.
— Anna Citrino, from Saudade