One of the reasons I got back to making bread after many years hiatus, is that donning that floury apron and baking bread makes me feel like I’m bonding with my grandmothers. For all those 18th and 19th century grandmas, making bread wasn’t just some Martha Stewart exercise in being trendy and “artisan.” If you wanted bread, you baked it! They were not making the easiest bread recipe, but I like to think that somebody discovered an easier way than their usual difficult job.
Great-Great-Great Grandma Bakes Bread
If it was early in the 18th century, you went to the miller and bought a sack of flour, lugging it home in a wagon or on the back of a horse or mule. And you stopped off at the brewers to pick up some of the yeast that was a by-product of his operation–because packaged yeast was somewhere in the dim future that you couldn’t even imagine. And the easiest bread recipe may not have been part of your repertoire.
You went home and mixed up the magic three ingredients–flour, water, and yeast –or you pulled your sourdough starter from the cool underground icehouse–and stirred up your batter in a big wooden bowl with a carved wooden spoon. (Perhaps you used a different grain, or added salt or even a bit of sugar.
Then you set the dough aside to rise, perhaps covered with a towel made of flour sack. And you went about your other daily chores–collecting the eggs, milking the cow, sewing the clothes, cultivating your kitchen garden, perhaps “putting up” some fruits and vegetables (canning we call it now) for the winter. All in a day’s work.
Of course, the first thing that morning you had stoked the fireplace fire and from long practice, you knew which part of the hearth made the best place to bake your bread. You took time off from your other chores to give the dough a good workout–kneading, kneading, kneading, and set it aside to rise again (if you were not using the easiest bread recipe). When the dough had risen to perfection, you pulled off a hunk and shaped it into a loaf, and set it on the sweet spot on the hearth to bake.
And the next day–or perhaps two days later–you did it all over again.
The Easiest Bread Recipe
While I make plenty of bread that takes a lot of kneading and rising time, I recently found this recipe for peasant bread from King Arthur Flour, and it is the simplest and easiest bread recipe I have come across. Those ancient grandmas would not have made this exact bread, because it calls for quick-rise yeast, which they definitely didn’t have. However, making a simple bread that bakes without extensive kneading and multiple risings would have been appealing, and might well reach back even to Europe before our ancestors came to North America.
Just mix the flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast. Let it rise for 1 1/2 hours. Deflate it a bit, put it in a oven-safe bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Bake for 15 minutes–and you’ve got bread. No kneading, no fuss no bother. Now isn’t that the easiest bread recipe ever?
(Follow the link to the King Arthur site for the recipe.)
A Bit of Bread History
This website gives us a fascinating look at the beginnings of bread. I learned that early Egyptians made the first commercial yeast–about 300 B.C. People got around to finely milling grains–thus enabling bakers to make softer breads instead of coarse “peasant breads” in 900 B.C. Another online history of bread tells us that bread was formed free-form on the bricks of the open oven until the 1800s. Finally pans were used. After the Civil War, we finally got commercially produced yeast and baking powder, which led to an easier way to make bread, if not the easiest bread recipe.
I love this Getty Museum article that tells you how to make bread the Medieval way–from growing your own wheat to building your own oven. Follow the link to see the entire process.