Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Challah dough after its first rise. Two hours ago, this was just a mess of flour, salt, yeast, milk, eggs, sugar, and honey.
Baking, more than any other form of cookery, strikes me as being a sort of alchemy.
When you throw a steak on a grill, the steaky deliciousness that results is not especially surprising. You end up with a finished product that looks pretty much like what you started with, except browner and tastier. When you steam some asparagus or roast a passel of Brussels sprouts, the cooked version resembles the raw... except for minor enhancements in appearance (and major enhancements, one hopes, in flavor).
Asparagus with piment d’Espelette looks pretty much like it did before I cooked it.
But baking is a whole ’nuther thing. You start with various powders, granulated substances, and liquids, and end up with something completely different. Something wonderful.
Think of the intellectual leap it must have taken to figure it out for the first time. To figure out how to convert grains like barley, spelt, wheat, and rye into flour. To understand that water, time, and temperature could convert that flour into a sort of flattish, edible, crackery cake. And, finally, to see the effect wild yeast had on that cracker, fermenting the sugars into alcohol and good old See-Oh-Two. The alchemists might have tried to turn lead into gold, but turning grain into bread was alchemy of a higher magnitude... for you could eat bread. And with the bread and beer produced from grain, you had the makings of an agrarian economy, even a civilization - because you had to stay in one place long enough to grow your barley and wheat.
The challah loaves I’ve been baking are a little more refined than those ancient Sumerian crackers, but they are nevertheless the result of that same marvelous alchemy. Flour, salt, water, yeast - and some milk, eggs, sugar and honey - is all it takes. That, and a little elbow grease - and heat.
Now, where’s that butter?