Monday, March 2, 2009

Thought of Food 3: A "Mahrashtrian" Bread

When I was in Bordeaux, France in the early 1980s, I loved to take the early morning walk to the Boulangerie, bakery shop that specializes in breads and rolls, to buy the stick of the freshly baked, nearly a yard-long, French bread baguette, which fits so nicely into the palm of your hand. The baguette has all the simple and basic elements of food (water, flour, yeast and salt) in it. It is baked with steam being injected so that the crust is allowed to expand before drying. It has slits in it to allow for the escape of moisture and water vapour. It ends up with a crunchy and crisp crust. The long bread is full of sin to taste when it is fresh and can be made more sinful by cutting it into slices and stuffing it with whatever one likes --- salami, French cheese, olives, marmalade --- even if it may not be entirely approved of by the traditional French cuisine.

Slices of baguette accompany every French meal. When the baguette is fresh, these slices become important in mopping up (the best part) the plate after the meal. When the baguette becomes even a day old, it becomes very dry and inedible except for some insistent Indians and few other foreigners. They become bird food in parks and lakes much to the joy of children who feed them and much at the expense of the birds’ health since they are not suppose to eat white bread --- I suppose the temptation for basically unhealthy food is the same for all living things including the carp in the ponds of Pymatuning (see internet).

I suppose feeding slices of slightly old baguette to western guests in Indian homes (we did not keep bread in bread boxes those days) would have driven them anyway to the chappathis and phulkas on the table. But it did bring out some comments from some friends mainly from east European countries (communist at that time). One of their more frequent grouses against the French was the quality of their breads. They disliked everything the French made in their Boulangeries --- except perhaps their sinful croissants. The East Germans scientist at University of Bordeaux’s Laboratoire de Chimie du Solide were proud of their black German breads which they carried with them wherever they went. These German black breads were always soft, you felt like a saint when you ate them, and never did any harm to your health knowingly, as well as, I suspect, unknowingly. Typically, German black bread would have sugar, rye, whole wheat, bran flakes, Caraway seed, fennel, molasses, vinegar, dark chocolate.

This recipe is meant as a small exercise to highlight the many possibilities available with local or desi cereals and grains. As a rice-eating Bengali I guess I should not be talking about breads. My present blog comes from my experiences with the food habits of the Maharashtrians. The Maharashtrians themselves may have not worried about ever thinking up a recipe like this. Why should they? On the other hand ... why not?


The basic ingredients for the dough are (click on pictures to expand)
• sorghum (jowar), millet (bajra), finger millet (raagi), whole wheat (from Navdanya) flour (atta), coriander seeds (dhaniya). The quantities taken are roughly equal as indicated in Fig 1 left (for this particular recipe the cups were nearly full). The jowar, bajra and raagi were ground for a short time (less than a minute) to get a coarse-grained powder.
• Fresh Baker’s yeast (in this case the yeast was kept in the deep-freeze of the refrigerator, and about a teaspoon scraped with a knife for making the dough), two table spoons of luke warm water, two teaspoons of sugar and one small table spoon of atta was mixed and allowed to rise for nearly half an hour (Fig 1 left shows the yeast mix after roughly fifteen minutes).
• The ground powder is mixed with the atta and the yeast paste along with one heaped teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of mustard oil (olive oil or butter could be used instead)
• Some of the other additives that were used to impart some flavour were curry leaves, generous amount of coriander seeds, flax seeds (jawas), seeds of a variety of melon, dried red chillies.
• One of my favorite additives (Lalitha does not like the concept) is to use the Indian fruit, kokkam (Indian mangosteen), which grows on trees in the region of the Western Ghats in India. This fruit is very sour. It is mixed in various foods to give them its unique flavour. I have found it makes a very rich red liqueur when soaked in spirits such as brandy or vodka along with other ingredients (more of that later). After the liqueur is drained out, the soaked kokkam lasts very long (four years and still going in this case). It tastes quite ok once you have removed your prejudices. If you are still prejudiced you could add olives or some red Kashmir chilly pickles.

• All the ingredients are then mixed together and made into dough by adding water till it seems to be just a little bit too dry. Then add one more teaspoon of water. The dough is kneaded for twenty-thirty minutes by hand. A bread-maker will not work (I do not have one in any case). Then rolled into a ball (Fig 2 left) and kept aside in a covered container for at least an hour. The dough size roughly doubles (Fig 2 right).
• The dough may be made into two, kneaded again for 15-20 minutes (good time pass; it helps to imagine you are giving somebody the treatment while you are kneading) and rolled into two (three) cylindrical bits and then plaited (Fig 3 left) and kept on an oiled and floured baking tray.

• A round aluminum vessel has also been used to bake the bread (Fig 4). The vessel is oiled (mustard oil in this case; it could be any preferred oil or butter) and floured and the rolled dough placed in (Fig 4 left).
• The dough is allowed to raise for another hour or so. The size of the dough doubles again (Fig 3 and Fig 4 right). The dough is now ready for baking.
• Before baking it may be preferable to prepare a crust for the bread. For this purpose I have used caraway (nutty anise flavour) and melon seeds (almond flavour) soaked in a thickish salt solution and spread on the dough (as in Fig 5 left). I have also mixed varai (jungle rice, Echninochloa colonum) in thick salt solution along with a thick syryp (Indian gooseberry or amla syrup was available; honey or treacle can do) and spread it on the bread (as in Fig 5 right).
• The breads were baked in an oven between 200 C – 220 C for 75-60 minutes (the temperature controller on this thirty-year old Siemens electric oven still worked but the setting was not accurate.
• The breads were taken out and cooled on a tray (Fig 5)

• The breads cut well (Fig 6, the blue colour is a reflection of the blue sky from the plastic cutting board) looked good, tasted very good, and stayed good (one week easily) in a closed container (Fig 7, another bajra-jowar-raagi bread with some changes)
• The breads lasted and tasted good. There was no after taste that one has with commercial breads even of the multigrain variety. The breads were neither puffy nor porous. They were not hard either. They were not meant to be since we were trying to get the effect of the German bread. Bruno (our fox terrier) preferred this bread to the other commercial baskets. Even the sparrows and other birds preferred the crumbs of this bread.

Some Food for Thought:
One of the problems of breads, German or French (it started with them? Or from the Egyptians?), is that they are made from dough (rye, wheat, barley or even oats) which have gluten in them. Gluten has many cosmetic properties that are liked by the cosmetic or plastic classes which prefer style and never worry about substance. It is gluten that makes the bread have that elastic feeling that allows the bread dough to swell like a balloon during fermentation without cracking up. After baking the gluten becomes hard and this helps to keep the starch in the bread to firm up so that the shape of many bakery items is preserved in the manner that is meant to attract. It is this gluten that is useful in rolling out the dough to make chappaties and rotis. Gluten provides many additional important qualities to bread.

What are the bad effects of gluten? There must be some even if they are not frightening. Among the downsides of gluten are
i) Bread becomes stale faster with Gluten. That is why you require toasting bread after a few days. Toasting bread becomes a value addition in restaurants, although the bread cannot be served unless it is toasted sometimes.
ii) Allergy to gluten gives coeliac disease which is an under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed digestive disease that affects the villi in the small intestine that is responsible for absorption of food. When the villi is affected there is no nourishment and one is tired no matter how much food one eats. In adults this can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, miscarriage, among other problems. As one can see the female species is perhaps more susceptible.
iii) In USA more than 1% of people are affected. This becomes nearly 5% when a parent, sibling or child has the disease.
iv) Avoidance of gluten-free (even in secondary foods) diet is necessary for patients with coeliac disease.
v) People with coeliac disease could also suffer from symptoms due to, say, Vitamin B12 deficiency. This is another line to be taken up later.
vi) With the monopolization of the food industry at least in terms of taste there must be some worry about the amount of gluten going into food. The craze for pastas has increased the use of durum wheat which has the largest amount of gluten.
vii) To reduce risks with gluten it is necessary to avoid all wheat products (including wheat starch, wheat bran, wheat germ, cracked wheat, hydrolyzed wheat protein) as well as rye and barley. That about gets rid of everything? It should not be a problem for rice eaters and bajra-jawar-raagi roti eaters once one continues to know how to flatten the dough between the palm of their hands as they have been doing for millennia.

The “Maharashtrian” bread is recommended for those who insist on not having these skills. Or for those who prefer to experiment for health’s sake.