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April 2017
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BREAD

BREAD

Bread is one of the most common and well known foods all over the world and it is also one of the foods that has the most varieties, regarding the ingredients, the quantity of the ingredients, preparation and shape. The basic ingredients are flour, water, salt and yeast, but some of these can be substituted with other ingredients and they can be added in a different order, in different amounts and worked on in an almost infinite number of ways and for different amounts of time. These factors usually depend on the resources available and the traditions of the area where the bread is being made and then sent to.

The (shortened) history of bread

The first traces of preparing a food similar to bread date back to prehistoric times when men discovered they could cook a dough from the powder of crushed acorns mixed with water on hot plates, which resulted in a tough but nutritious product that was similar to focaccia. Following this, the flour obtained from crushed cereals, like barley and farro, was used instead of acorn powder. The primacy of letting the bread rise is down to the Babylonians and was then perfected by the Egyptians, who also devised the first bread-making tools. The Greeks then added other ingredients to the dough and established the first public ovens, whilst the Romans refined the recipe and made it popular. In the Medieval times, wheat was a luxury so the population had to make bread with barley or rye, whilst, during the Renaissance, wheat become common again and bread was made with brewer’s yeast and high quality flour. The new twist in bread-making came about in the last few years of the 18th century with the invention of mechanical mixers and the production of artificial yeast.

Typology

According the ingredients used, Italian bread can normally be divided into two categories:

  • normal bread
  • special bread

Normal bread is bread made from a dough of wheat flour, yeast, water and salt (but this last ingredient is not used in some recipes, such as those for Tuscan bread or ‘salt free’ bread).
Special bread includes a large variety of doughs which have had other ingredients added to the basic ones, or have had basic ingredients substituted with other ones, such as oil, butter, malt, sugar, milk or fruit, or the wheat flour has been mixed with another flour, like barley, rye, mais, soya or rice flour.

Normal bread It is mainly the quality of the flour that makes normal and special bread different: the flour used in normal breads must be either common wheat flour, white flour or wholemeal flour. According to whether the flour is type 00, 0, 1, 2 or wholemeal, the bread will take on the relative characteristics, and if wholemeal or bran flour is used, the bread can be called ‘wholemeal’. If the bread is made with type 1 or 2 flour, it can be called ‘homemade’ or ‘rustic’. Despite the different shapes and sizes, normal bread always has a thin, golden crust and is soft inside, thanks to the wheat flour. Bread made from durum wheat flour also falls into the normal bread category and this is the bread that is made of bran and has risen but looks very compact.
Special bread There are hundreds of different types of breads eaten in Italy and they are the result of different uses and traditions, which sometimes even have ancient origins. The so called ‘regional breads’, which interpret the basic bread recipe in many different ways (and in some cases are classified as normal bread), include milk bread (the water is substituted with milk, butter and sugar in this case), potato bread (a variable amount of boiled potato is mixed in with the flour) or sweet bread (which has butter, sugar and other aromatic ingredients added to it).

Types of regional bread in Italy

  • ‘Michetta’ or ‘rosetta’: this bread is round with a flat base and is usually star shaped. It is hollow inside as it is left to rise for a long time. It originally comes from Lombardy.
  • ‘Biova’: this originally comes from the Piedmont region and, similarly to ‘michetta’ bread, it is made by leaving the dough to rise for a long time but there is less water in the dough. This means that is only semi-hollow and very soft inside.
  • Rye bread: this is most common in South Tyrol and is aromatised with cumin seeds.
  • ‘Ciriola’: this is traditionally Roman and it is long with a very soft centre.
  • ‘Coppia’: this bread originally comes from Ferrara and it has a special shape (it has four ‘limbs’) and is made from hard dough. It almost crumb-free.
  • ‘Casarau’ or ‘carta di musica’: this has ancient Sardinian origins and is flat, round and very thin. It is light in colour, crunchy and crumbly and is made from semolina and small amount of yeast.

Preparing the dough

The ingredients you need to make bread are flour, yeast, water and salt. For each kilogram of flour used, you need to have 50g of yeast, 4dl of water and 20g of salt, which corresponds to 2 teaspoons.
The dough that you will make the bread from first needs to be made into a ‘panetto’ (small bread) made from flour, tepid water and yeast. This latter ingredient can be brewer’s, chemical or natural yeast however, depending on the yeast used, the bread can be quite digestible, fragrant and flavoursome.
The ‘panetto’ must be left to rise in a floured container and covered (preferably with a cloth), possibly in a warm place, until it has doubled in size. You can then make the dough using flour, salt and water, kneading it with your hands and then amalgamating it with the ‘panetto’, mixing them together until small bubbles appear on the surface (the kneading and mixing should involve folding and refolding the dough). At this point, the new dough should be left to rise and leave it until it doubles in size again. The third part of the preparation consists of turning it into the shape you want, after which, and after another rising period, the dough can be placed in the oven.
The preparation of the dough, even for normal bread, can be subject to variations related to the quantity and quality of the ingredients, or the local bread making traditions. A common variation is to mix in and work the ingredients together all at once. Another quite efficient way to do things, which is definitely less time consuming too, is to use bread making machines, which are automatic kneaders, and, as well as kneading the dough, they allow it to rise and cook, keeping it in a hot environment from the very beginning.

Cooking the bread

Bread must be cooked in a preheated oven at temperature between 200-250°C. For the best results, regarding fragrance and taste, use a wood fired oven. If you use a gas oven, pay close attention to the bottom of the bread as this tends to burn. On the other hand, the bottom cooks slower in an electric oven, compared to the top, so the bread must be turned halfway through cooking.
After the bread has been cooked, it must be left to cool down in a dry place so that the humidity comes out with affecting the crust, which must be flavourful.

Preserving the bread

A few simple steps can slow down the solidification process of bread which happens after just a few days (homemade bread tends to last about 1 day longer than shop bought bread). If you eat it on the same day you buy/make it, the bread will not have lost its typical features, flavour or softness. If you do not eat it on the day it was made however, you need to preserve it in a dry place, in a paper bag, either wrapped in a cloth or in an air-tight container.
Better still, you can freeze it and this means you can eat it at another time, within 3 months of freezing it. When freezing bread, wrap it in aluminium foil, and if the loaf is big, cut it up into pieces before putting it in the freezer, which will facilitate the freezing process.
You can defrost bread in many ways; leaving it to defrost at room temperature, put it in the oven or in the microwave.

BREAD

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