Traditional Breads (Article)

Try the Greek way with bread (wheat)

Greeks have much more to offer to the cuisine of multicultural Australia than cakes, mousaka and souvlaki. They have many legume dishes, exquisite salads, many other traditional foods and a rich bread-making tradition which, although declining, is still remembered by many Greeks.

They can also offer something beneficial from their way of eating bread. With a few exceptions in recent years, they do not spread anything on bread but dip it in the food’s own juices that are rich in nutrients. The tomato salad juices stand out.

People who say that bread is fattening rarely give authoritative support for their argument. It is the spreading (butter, margarine, jam) which makes bread fattening. Bread has been a major part of the diet for thousands of years and there is no historical or scientific evidence to suggest that all those generations of people suffered from obesity as a result of eating bread.

A word of warning! Greek meat dishes usually contain a lot of fat. Traditionally, however, Greeks rarely ate meat which was a Sunday special, while many families enjoyed it even less often.

The father of medicine, Hippocrates – as many dietary authorities today – recommended wholemeal bread. Until last century, however, the difference between the two breads was minor; neither the grinding nor the sifting was satisfactory. In addition, the ancient ‘white’ bread (which could have been as wholemeal, perhaps more, as today’s wholemeal bread) was expensive and only the rich could afford to eat it.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with having discovered leavened bread about 2,500 BC. The basic ingredients were flour, water, leaven (a rising agent from natural yeast also called starter) and unprocessed sea salt. Only as recently as just over 100 years ago were changes made such as the removal of bran and germ, the addition of other substances, and the use of commercial yeast instead of natural yeast. Late in the 19th century, roller mills were introduced to eventually replace the stone mills.

As with other parts of the world, in Greece, every time bread was made a small piece of the dough was kept to be used as starter for the next breadmaking. Because I do not think it will be easy for you to find a piece of starter I have described the way to prepare it.

In a small clean earthen or glass container – avoid plastic or metal containers – place a quarter of a cup water and mix in flour for a dough. Cover with a clean cloth and leave until the mixture starts developing bubbles or the dough cracks (depending on the consistency of the dough). This will take from two to five days. When it occurs add twice as much flour and water as the original quatity, mix well and wait until it starts bubbling again. This will take less time than before. Although the starter is ready, for better maturity you can repeat the process once or twice, but every time you do so double or triple the quantity of the starter and aim for a stiffer dough.

For a one kilogram loaf you will need about four cups flour, one cup leaven, one and three quarter cups lukewarm water and half tea spoon of salt. Disolve the salt and leaven in the water, add the flour and knead well. The more you knead, the more elastic the gluten will become resulting in better rising. You can make the dough soft or hard. Traditionally, it was usually made hard initially and softened with the addition of warm water during the kneading Because of its higher gluten content only flour from hard varieties of wheat are suitable for bread making.

The more moist the dough, and the longer it takes to rise, the sourer the bread will become. It depends on your taste how sour you wish to make your bread. Some people like it sour, while Greeks prefer it with as little sourness as possible.

As soon as you finish kneading, sprinkle the dough with flour, cover it with a clean cloth and place in a warm place. If the dough becomes cold it will take too long to rise and will become very sour.

When the dough becomes double the original size (it will take three to seven hours depending on the dough and room temparature), shape it into loaves and place them in greased bread tins – filled halfway to allow room for the rising. Cover them with a clean cloth and put them in a warm place until they are double in size. It will take from one to three hours depending on the temperature.

The loaves are ready to be placed in a hot oven (approximately 210 degrees Celsius) when they crack or become double in size. The best oven is the wood-fired, then gas, followed by electric. You may need to change the position of containers in the oven and to reduce the temperature gradually down to about 180 degrees Celcius. Do not open the oven door for at least 20 minutes. Experiment until you find the correct temperature for your oven. The baking will take at least one hour. Knock the bottom of the loaf, and if it produces a deep hollow sound the bread is ready. If in doubt bake the loaves longer. It is preferable for bread to be over baked rather than under-cooked.

When the loaves are ready, place them on a clean wood surface or a cooling rack and cover them with a clean cloth until cool. If you can resist the temptation of hot bread, they will be ready for eating after 12 hours. Bread connoisseurs like their bread even older.

Keep a handful of the final dough which will be your starter for the next time you make bread. It will keep better if you add more salt and flour, knead for a stiff dough and place it in a small bowl into which you have sprinkled salt. Soon it will rise and in a few days it will become hard. When you need it, disolve all or part of it in water, mix in flour for a dough, wait until it rises (double in size or starts to crack) and this is your starter for the main dough.

From: The Age, Tuesday 3 June, 1986 – with amendments.

Barley bread

More people seem to be suffering from wheat or yeast allergy in recent years. The long-neglected sourdough barley bread that was used since ancient times in such culinary-diverse countries as England, Italy and Greece could provide the answer.

The following bread-making procedure has been passed on to me by Androniki Pieri, who has spent a lifetime making bread. Like many older people, she is keen to pass on her knowledge of bread making. Her disappointment is that, of her five adult children, only her elder daughter has mastered bread making and then only wheat bread.

For the making of the starter follow the same process as for wheat bread – as described above. Mixing in wheat flour with barley for the main dough will make the dough preparation easier and the loaves lighter.

Shaping the loaves. When the main dough cracks, shape it into loaves. Make sure the loaves have smooth surfaces without any creases, otherwise the loaves will split wide open during baking. Place the loaves into greased bread tins, cover with a clean cloth and wait until they crack.

The baking.
The baking temperature for barley bread is higher than for wheat bread, thus I suggest you experiment with your oven starting with a temperature of about 225 degrees Celcius and increase it or decrease it accordingly. Gradually lower the temperature of the oven to about 180 degrees Celcius. Mrs Pieri did not have the benefit of thermometers. A look at the colour of the bricks of her traditional brick wood-fired oven or placing her hand in front of the oven would accurately tell her the right temperature for the baking. The baking takes longer than wheat bread.

The eating. To enjoy this bread you must forget the current concept of eating bread – that is buttered sliced bread – and you must be prepared for bread crumbs. This bread is very hard compared to wheat bread and slicing is not as effective. Consider this way of eating it: moisten the hard crust well and cover the loaf with a tea towel for a few minutes – it doesn’t matter if it stays longer. Dip the bread into the salad or casserole dish juices. You could also eat it in a more simple way, the way rural people used to eat it – i.e. tomato or other vegetables, olives or cheese.

Crackers.
After the loaves have been baked you could cut them in half across their lengths and put them back in the oven to make crackers. Soak these crackers in water for a few minutes and let them drain for half-an-hour or longer before eating.

(From: The Age, Tuesday 9, April, 1991 – with major amendments.)

Rye bread

Follow the same process as for barley bread making sure that the dough is very stiff for easy shaping of the loaves and for effective baking. As with barley bread, mixing in wheat flour will make the mixing of the dough easier and the loaves lighter.

Unlike wheat and barley breads, rye bread cannot be made succesfully with commenrcial yeast. Rye gluten requires an acidic environment that is provided from the leaven starter. For succesful rye bread using commercial yeast consider adding some vinegar.

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