Friday, September 5, 2014

Betsy - Challenge 7: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

I got a little literal, and a little abstract with this one, guys. The first thing that popped into my head with "food revolutions" was Grahamism, so I decided to go with that, and take the "bread" part literally with Graham bread.

Grahamism was a food movement, promoted by Reverend Sylvester Graham (duh) in the early to mid-19th century. Rev. Graham was sort of the Dr. Atkins of his time. He promoted a strict vegetarian diet, healthy habits (including daily bathing and the daily brushing of teeth), and abstinence from alcohol. This, he believed, would cure lust - he also promoted sexual abstinence. I bet he was a lot of fun to be around. If you're dealing with insomnia, you might want to give his A Treatise on Bread, and Bread-Making a try. Despite this, his diet was immensely popular and his ideas influenced many of the leading nutritionists of the 19th century, including the Kellogg brothers.

One of the pillars of the Graham diet was a hearty, dense, whole wheat bread that came to be known as Graham bread. In the 19th century, flour was frequently adulterated with substances like chalk, and contained additives to make the bread appear whiter. Graham bread was made with "unbolted"(coarsely-ground whole wheat) flour, free of additives and adulterations. It should be noted that the healthy properties of such bread was well-known and recognized, especially for those suffering stomachaches - it was often called "dyspeptic bread". Graham didn't invent the bread, or Graham flour, but his promotion of the bread connected his name with it, as noted by Elizabeth Acton in Modern Cookery.

The hey-day of Grahamism was the 1840s and early 1850s. I wanted to make an 1860s recipe, rather than an earlier recipe, so I found this recipe for Graham bread from Practical American Cookery, edited by Elizabeth Hall:

So. "Make in the usual fashion", right?

The Challenge: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

The Recipe: Graham Bread, from Practical American Cookery

The Date/Year and Region: 1860, United States

How Did You Make It:  I looked up the recipe for wheat bread in the same volume, which called for four quarts of flour and a pint of yeast, and I knew I was in over my head. This might be a good time to once again note that I am no great chef, and I am even less great of a bread-baker. Working with yeast terrifies me. So I put out a call to the fine folks over in the Facebook group to see what their experience was, while I got to researching. Long story short: yes, their yeast was different from ours - it mostly came from breweries as a byproduct of beer-brewing, and there are some ways to reproduce it. There is much more to say about this, but I'm going to save it for another day (and another post) and just note that I decided that I, my apartment neighbors, and those taste-testing the bread would all just be happier if I saved yeast experiments for another time and place, and went with some active dry yeast.

Also, when is a quart not a quart? When Mrs. Hall says it is a pound. Lesson learned: check out the measurements guide in any 19th century cookbook, or you'll be very sad.

Despite all that, I emerged victorious. Using the aforementioned wheat bread recipe, I figured out the proportion of water and salt to flour. I took the Graham bread recipe and turned it into a ratio: two parts fine flour, two parts unbolted flour, and one part cornmeal. I did two cups of each flour, and one cup of the scalded cornmeal. I added the salt and the molasses, kneaded, let it rise, put in loaf pans, let it rest for an hour, then popped it into a 350 degree oven for about 35 minutes.

Time to Complete: From scalding the cornmeal to finishing the bread, it took about 3 hours, but that was mostly letting the dough rise and then rest. Probably about half an hour to 45 minutes of actual work.

Total Cost: Negligible. All-purpose flour and whole-wheat flour and cornmeal, all of which I had on hand, plus the yeast, salt and a dollop of molasses = basically nothing.

How Successful Was It?: It turned out pretty good! It was tasty - a little bland, but not bad. Scalding the cornmeal really helped, I think - it's definitely dense and chewy, but it doesn't have that gritty cornmeal texture. The Gentleman Friend (once again playing the part of guinea pig) declared it a success. I sent him home with half a loaf.

How Accurate Is It?: Well, there's the aforementioned yeast issue; I'd definitely like to try it again with a more accurately-replicated yeast to see what the difference is. I also made a judgement call on the unbolted flour - some recipe books called it "bran", but many of the recipes for Graham bread suggested sifting the flour first before using it, so I decided to use whole wheat flour. Again, I'd like to try it again and see what the taste difference is.

Have a picture!

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