Sometimes bread is just bread, but sometimes it’s something more. I was thinking of this as I kneaded some bread dough this morning. I know that in some cultures, bread is so revered that if so much as a bread crumb falls on the floor, it is picked up, kissed, and placed back on the table.
I was making the pita bread recipe from Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, and was planning to stamp the breads with a wooden seal called a sphragis, which is used to make a communion bread for Orthodox Christian services. The loaf of bread itself is called a prosphoron.
I had had the seal for a while, and found myself hesitating to use it. I don’t like using something that is sacred to another culture in an unthinking way, and knew that the moment I stamped the dough with the wooden seal, that it was more than just bread. I live in a profoundly secular and materialistic society, but I have tried, stumbling and falling, to walk on a spiritual path. One thing I have learned is that the path can appear in strange places, unbidden.
I stamped the loaves, placed them in the oven, and wondered what it would be like if everything in my life were sacred, even me. It brought me to tears. Sometimes bread is more than just bread. I plan to keep walking.
1 package dry yeast
1-1/4 cups very warm water
pinch of sugar
2-1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast and the pinch of sugar in the warm water. When you see the yeast frothing, proceed.
Stir in 2 cups of flour and the salt. Beat with 50 vigorous strokes. Add the half cup additional flour, first mixing with a spoon and then kneading with your hands. If the dough seems a bit too sticky to knead, add a handful more flour. Knead in the bowl for about five minutes, until it is smooth. Allow to rise in a warm place for about 1-1/2 hours.
Grease a baking sheet, and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. On a floury work surface, turn out the risen dough and divide with a knife into six pieces.
Using a rolling pin, roll each piece out to about a five inch circle. They don’t have to be perfect.* Allow the bread to puff up–it will only take about 15 minutes, since the yeast is rarin’ to go.
Flip the loaves over. (If you are using a bread stamp, this is the time to stamp the loaves, after flipping. Be sure the work surface is floury, and be sure to lightly dust the dough discs with flour.)
You can poke holes in the bread with a skewer, around the central square, and around the edge of the circle, as shown. It won’t puff up as much.
Place on the baking sheet (three at a time) and pop into the oven. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Without the holes, the bread puffs up more.
*A wise chef once told me that if people wanted something perfect, they could go to the frozen food aisle at the grocery store and buy Sarah Lee.
Baking Notes: I learned something interesting during this bread baking session. I normally use a large stainless steel bowl for bread baking. It’s light and unbreakable. To make things a bit more interesting, though, photographically, I used a very cool-looking ceramic bowl, like something from grandma’s kitchen. I poured in the warm water, yeast and pinch of sugar, and waited. The yeast did nothing. It floated in the water, yawning. Yikes. Normally the yeast starts foaming up quickly. Then it occurred to me that the yeast just hated the cool ceramic bowl. Think of how cool a tile floor is, even in the summer. The bowl was too cool, in all ways! I started again, this time in my stainless steel bowl, which heated up the moment I poured the water in, and the yeast foamed dramatically. Lesson learned.
I like to include a big handful of whole wheat flour in this recipe–about a quarter cup. It gives the bread a bit more texture.
You can purchase a bread stamp here, and learn much more about prosphora here. If you want to find authentic additional recipes, check http://www.prosphora.org. It has some broken links, but, otherwise, has interesting recipes.
Since birds have been scarce in my garden this time of year, I am offering a few favorite goldfinch photos. The finches are out there–I can hear their song–but I haven’t seen them–probably over at the neighbor’s! Peace. Fran