On a pretty regular basis, the question “Who was the first person to eat (fill in the blank)?” will sidetrack me from a task at hand. It may seem like woolgathering, but really, the question is a pretty powerful one. Think about it. Once the mind starts to wonder about the first person to spot an artichoke, for example, and decide it looked edible, the imagination kicks in and fleshes out a plucky individual. Curious, adventurous, a bit of a risk taker, and probably very, very hungry. Indeed, hunger must have outweighed risk back in the day of the first artichoke eater, or first consumer of any unfamiliar food. Hunger would have been the great push, damn the consequences.
When some brave soul first looked at tall, grassy wheat and came up with the idea of grinding it to a flour, turning the flour into a paste with water and airborne yeasts, shaping this concoction into a cake, and then sticking it into fire, that person risked the possibilities of both generic failure (if the baked cake amounted to nothing) and abject failure (if the plant were toxic). But he or she did it anyway. And quite the opposite of failing happened: the risk changed the world.
Once wheat and other grains could be milled into flours, people became farmers instead of subsistence foragers. They could live close to each other instead of roaming, they were certain of eating because of what they produced. Communities grew and people thrived. Around bread. Because of bread.
For modern communities, bread still matters.
I spent an hour yesterday morning visiting and talking with Alyse Barbash, Executive Director of Haven From Hunger, a large-scale community food pantry and soup kitchen serving three towns on the north shore of Massachusetts. Alyse is the kind of person every food pantry wants as its head. Bighearted but tough. Empathetic but savvy. Kind with a generous dose of sassy. A creative problem-solver, she knows how to get things done. She has to. As Director, Alyse manages a fleet of volunteers, multiple food deliveries, and relationships with town officials and potential donors and regional food banks and farms and area restaurants. And for four days during the week, her pantry opens at 10 am to lines waiting down the block for grocery pickup, and stays open through the dinner hour to serve many in the area a prepared hot meal.
Hunger brings people here; it’s the push that gets them through the door. Alyse and staff feed them. Inside the building on Wallis Street, long tables are lined with grocery bags pre-packed and full with meats and dairy products and dry goods. Fresh greens and parsnips sit in self-selection bins. There’s bread too, loaf after loaf of whole grain bread.
As she wrapped my tour of the facility, Alyse pointed to the table piled high with plastic sacks of sliced bread. “Food deliveries change, but we always have bread. Lots and lots of it.”
Different times, different hardships, but hunger remains the same. Bread too. Bread still sustains people and communities and allows both to thrive. We owe this to some curious, adventurous, risk-taking hungry eater. Worthy of a little purposeful woolgathering, don’t you think?
This Week’s Pumpkin-Multigrain Yeast Bread
Unlike spiced pumpkin tea breads or muffins, this yeast bread is savory and toothsome. I used up the last of last weekend’s fresh pumpkin puree in this bread, but you may also used canned pumpkin puree. I give a range of the amount of flour needed for the recipe. Fresh pumpkin will probably require more flour, while canned pumpkin will require less. Start by using the smaller amount and add more as needed.
The recipe makes two loaves, or one loaf and a pan of dinner rolls. One for keeping, one for giving. Think about giving one away.
- 3/4 cup tepid water
- 1 Tbsp. dry yeast
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cups pumpkin puree, homemade or canned
- 4 3/4 -5 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup multigrain blend (available in bulk bins at natural grocery stores or from King Arthur Flour)
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp. water for glaze (optional)
Place the yeast and tepid water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add to this the honey and canola oil. Let stand until yeast foams.
Once foamy, add the eggs and pumpkin puree.
Mix with the dough hook until the yolks are broken and begin to combine with the liquids and pumpkin.
Add to the bowl 4 3/4 cups flour, the salt, and the multigrain blend. Set your stand mixer to the manufacturer’s recommended setting for kneading, and knead the dough for 8 minutes, or until an elastic dough forms a ball that does not stick to the bottom or sides of the bowl.
During the first 5 minutes of kneading, add up to another 1/2 cup of flour, 2 Tbsp. at a time as needed to reach the right consistency. Homemade pumpkin puree will require more flour than canned.
Oil a bowl and place the dough ball in it, turning it once or twice to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place the dough in a warm place to rise until doubled. Egg-enriched doughs take longer to rise, so rising may take 1 to 2 hours.
Spray either two loaf pans or 1 loaf pan and one 9″ round pan with non-stick spray. Gently deflate the risen dough on a wooden board or other work surface. Divide evenly in half. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough into a long oval that is slightly wider at one end.
Starting from the wide end, roll the dough into a log or torpedo shape, tucking the narrow end under the log.
Place this in the loaf pan, seam side down. Repeat with the other half for a second loaf.
For rolls, use the second piece and divide it into 8 even pieces. Form each into a small, smooth ball and set in the round pan.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover pans with plastic wrap that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Let rise in a warm place until the top of the loaf crests the pan by about half an inch. Brush the tops of the bread with the egg wash if desired. Remove the plastic and bake in the preheated oven, 40 minutes for loaves, 30 minutes for rolls.
©2011 Jane A. Ward