Oct 23, 2014 Last Updated 6:22 AM, Oct 14, 2014
 
 

Flour: Grains of the Gods

Category: Pastry & Baking

Flour: Grains of the Gods

A look at bread and chocolate and their connection to the divine in ancient history.

Bread and chocolate are connected not just through the classic pastry pain au chocolat, but through the many gods and goddesses of ancient cultures who watch over them.  Chocolate is known as “the food of the gods” because its Latin name, theobroma cacao, refers to the practice of Aztecs kings and noblemen who used chocolate to honor their gods of creation (specifically, a feathered serpent named Quetzalcoatl).

Bread and chocolate are connected not just through the classic pastry pain au chocolat, but through the many gods and goddesses of ancient cultures who watch over them.  Chocolate is known as “the food of the gods” because its Latin name, theobroma cacao, refers to the practice of Aztecs kings and noblemen who used chocolate to honor their gods of creation (specifically, a feathered serpent named Quetzalcoatl). Unlike chocolate, which was reserved for royalty, early bread was made from the fruit of wild grains and became the food of the common people. It dates back to prehistoric nomads. Most accounts credit the Egyptians with advancing bread making by refining culinary techniques and relying on cultivated grains. Later, in Rome, bread was made from grass seeds farmed, harvested, milled and baked under the nurturing eyes of their powerful and beloved goddess, Ceres. Today, her legacy lives on as the most popular grains—wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley and oats are the cereal grains (from “Ceres”) which feed more people that any other food source on earth.

Nutritious seeds in the stalks, such as the wheat berry or the corn kernel, distinguish cereal grains. Flour, in the many forms we know it today – all-purpose flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour, cake flour, oat flour, rye flour, cornmeal – is milled from the grain. The nutrients and complexity of these seeds and the resulting flours create myriad products, from French baguettes to birthday cakes; multi-grain sourdough batards to cornbread; Cocoa Puffs to chocolate soufflés.

Today’s pastry chefs are blessed with bags of flour designed specifically for the purpose of their final product. Bread flour, made from hard red wheat typically grown in the “wheat belt” of the central United States, provides the protein and structure necessary for bread loaves. Cake flour, made from soft red wheat and often found in Europe, is finely milled and whitened, which provides the soft, springy crumb of delicate cakes.

Pastry flour, also made from soft red wheat, is designed to produce a tender product, but is less processed than cake flour. In industrial kitchens, pastry chefs grab the right bag for the job. Restaurant chefs and home cooks often rely on all-purpose flour, suitable for pie dough, Danishes or any items that ride the balance beam of tender crust and significant structure.  In artisan bakeries, however, the flour choices expand dramatically: rye and pumpernickel flours are mixed with bread flour for a hearty, brown loaf; whole wheat flour is mixed with golden flaxseed flour and seven others for a nine-grain loaf; durum flour supplies the right texture for handmade pasta. The increase in options can create an increase in confusion: who supplies the best flours for artisan baking?  Is there a price difference? And when is the highest quality really necessary for a simple loaf of bread or a cake for a children’s birthday party?

Nancy Silverton is something of a bread goddess, lauded for her Los Angeles bakery filled with crusty, flour-dusted, hand-shaped breads. “When I opened La Brea Bakery in 1989, bread was something most Americans bought in plastic bags at the supermarket.“ Today, over 300 varieties of artisan breads and rolls are sold throughout the country. They all came from the same sourdough starter.  “A beautiful sourdough loaf, burnished brown on the outside, has a solid but not impenetrable crust, subtly blistered with tiny fermentation bubbles that say, this is a loaf of integrity, a loaf made with care and with time.” Her high-quality flours are carefully selected and blended. While her bread loaves might be more expensive than a supermarket bag of bread, the experience of eating it will be completely different and, in a word, exceptional.

Mass-produced bread in the modern age, wonderful in a Wonder Bread way, has always had detractors. With industrialization, bread became available to cheaply feed millions of people. But with industrialization came chemicals. Commercial flours are often bleached or “bromated” so they achieve a whiter color and are able to absorb water more efficiently, which creates a white, easy-to-mix, and uniform dough. The processes that make them comfortingly and reliably squishy also make them nutritionally void and flavorless. Artisan bakers prefer less processed flours with high levels of protein, no bleach and no chemicals.

According to Susan Reid, Editor of The Baking Sheet from King Arthur Flour in Vermont, her company was founded in 1790 to avoid flour that was adulterated with substances like ground chalk and bone, a common practice back in colonial times. Purity is still primary for King Arthur Flour. “We mill our all-purpose flour to 11.7% protein. Most supermarket flours are in the neighborhood of 10.5%.  What that means for the baker is consistent performance and superior flavor.” The biggest test of any cake flour is a high-ratio white cake.  King Arthur’s recipe (below) presents a very soft white cake where the flour’s purity can be appreciated.

The old fashioned traditions of bread making – or perhaps the spirit of the gods and goddesses who supervise the grains – continue to attract new recruits.  When Pastry Chef Gena Lora started her artisan bread bakery Baked on Ocean View in 2011, she inherited old creaky ovens, a small clientele in Montrose, California and six splintered peals to pull the sourdough boules and rye loaves from the ovens. After teaching culinary students how to make bread for 10 years, Gena was ready to expand her artisan repertoire.  “I look for the small adjustments in starters and fermentation time that make big differences in flavor, and I sometimes add soakers or sunflower seeds to give a loaf more character,” she says. Here, her go-to Sourdough Boule has a sharp acidity and a beautiful open crumb.

The Lord’ Prayer contains, unforgettably, these words: “Give us this day our daily bread,” in which bread symbolizes all that is necessary to a good life.  While the concept of daily bread may change with culture and over time, its significance, indeed its “godliness”, is in the grain.

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