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Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 03:32 pm

How kids can make their own dough



I’ve written about make-your-own-pizza nights before. They were a Glatz tradition: Family nights that often ended with us all watching a video, and on really special occasions, make-your-own-sundaes. Initially they were just for our immediate family, but soon they expanded into almost de rigueur fare for sleepovers and slumber parties. When our kids were young, lots of close adult supervision was also de rigueur, but as they and their friends moved into their middle school years they’d become competent enough that I sometimes found myself delivering a mini-tutorial about the science involved in making pizza dough rather than having to make sure they didn’t do themselves bodily harm. During their high school years, my husband’s and my supervision took on a different form.

After our youngest graduated from high school in 2003, make-your-own-pizza nights became mostly a pleasantly nostalgic memory, although we did manage a few on the rare occasions when everyone was home. When I started teaching cooking classes, my first for children was about making pizza, for which I expanded and wrote down my off-the-cuff bread-making tutorial. But I taught that class over a decade ago.

The Glatz make-your-own-pizza tradition came back to life last week when my daughter and grandson came to visit. Robbie will be 3 in November, and is fully into being a “terrible two.” But watching his excitement during MYOPN was worth the mess, even though it pretty much took two adults to monitor him.

It’ll be several more years before Robbie is ready for my bread tutorial, expanded or otherwise. Still, last week reminded me how much fun – and educational – making their own pizzas can be for kids; and what a great interactive family activity it is.

What follows was written for approximately middle-school-aged children. But re-reading it made me remember some interesting bread-making facts I’d forgotten; hopefully it will be interesting to adults who aren’t obsessive bread makers. And it just might make a good starting point for a school science project.

How bread happens

There are thousands of kinds of different yeast breads, but all must have just three things: wheat flour, water and yeast. Other things are often added for flavor or texture, but they aren’t essential. In France, it’s even a law that traditional French bread, most often formed into long thin loaves called baguettes, can only be made with wheat flour, water, yeast and salt.

There is another category of breads, known as flatbreads. Flatbreads were the earliest bread. Food anthropologists (scientists who study the history of foods and how they’ve evolved over time) believe that the first flatbreads may have been made as long ago as 30,000 years ago, although they don’t know exactly when. Flatbreads are just what they sound like – flat, made with various sorts of ground grain and cereals, flavoring and liquid, usually water. We still eat them today: Things such as tortillas, tortilla chips and crackers are flatbreads. Pizza dough is not technically considered a flatbread, even though it is often kind of flat. But it contains yeast, and because the dough rises slightly (thin crust) or a lot (thick crust), it’s not a true flatbread. But for now we’re going to focus on yeast breads.

Yeasts are living organisms, tiny plants with 3200 billion cells to a pound. They feed on carbohydrates – especially sugars. When they are feeding they produce gasses (the same way people do when they breathe out), especially carbon dioxide and ethanol. People used yeast to make bread for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1857 when Louis Pasteur – a French scientist most famous for inventing pasteurization – proved that they are living plants. Yeasts are part of the huge Fungi family of plants, as are mushrooms.

There are many different strains of yeasts. Wild yeasts are everywhere in the air. If a mixture of flour and water is left out in the open and the right kinds of yeasts are around, they will start to feed on the flour/water mixture and eventually produce sourdough “starter,” a thick gooey substance filled with bubbles. If you watch it, you’ll actually see the bubbles come to the top and pop.

Sourdough starter must be fed regularly to keep it fresh and strong enough to make bread. Sourdough bread bakers save part of their sourdough starter whenever they make bread. They feed flour and water to the sourdough starter until they are ready to make bread again.

For thousands of years, using wild yeast was the only way to make risen bread. In fact sourdough bread making was recorded in ancient Egypt over 4000 years ago and may be lots older than that.

In early America, the pioneers in wagon trains headed west, slept with their jar of sourdough starter so it wouldn’t get too cold and be ruined. It was the only way they could be sure of having bread – not just on their journey, but also when they reached their destination.

Today we use sourdough because of its wonderfully delicious tangy flavor and the special kinds of bread that can be made with it. My own sourdough starter is over 15 years old. (More about it can be found in my Oct. 6, 2011 column at the IT website.) But most bread these days – whether homemade or store bought contains commercial yeast, usually in the form of dried granules. These strains of yeast are easy to work with and allow people to make bread much more easily, reliably and quickly. In America, the first commercial yeast was introduced by Charles and Max Fleishmann at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876. The company they founded is still in business; it’s the brand I use.

Wheat flour is also an important part of making bread. There are two basic kinds of wheat – hard and soft.

Hard wheat grows in colder climates – from the Midwest up to the Northern states and into Canada. All flour is composed mainly of two things – carbohydrates and protein. The proteins in wheat flour are called glutens, and they act in a special way. When mixed with water, they form stretchy sheets. When yeast (either wild sourdough yeast or commercial yeast) is added to the flour and water mix, the yeast feed on the carbohydrates and produce gasses – especially carbon dioxide and ethanol. These gas bubbles get trapped in between the sheets of gluten: that’s what causes the dough to rise. When the bread goes into a hot oven, if the baker has done a good job, the yeasts give off a last blast of gas bubbles that make the bread rise even more as it bakes.

Soft wheat grows in warm climates. It’s not as good for making yeast breads because it is low in gluten (protein). That is why in Southern states, their most traditional breads aren’t yeast breads, but what are called quick breads – things such as biscuits, cornbread and muffins that are made with chemical rising agents like baking powder and baking soda.

Southerners did make yeast breads, but before modern transportation methods, hard wheat flour was much more expensive because it had to be imported from up north. Only well-to-do families could regularly afford yeast breads.

Likewise, flour made from grains such as rye, rice or corn contains little or no gluten. Only wheat flour has enough gluten to make yeast breads. Yeast breads made with rye or other flours always also contain high gluten wheat flour so that the bread can rise.

Combining basic wheat flour, water and yeast is essentially a simple process. But the variety of breads that people make from that simple process is incredible – from sandwich bread to sweet rolls, coffee cakes, to sandwich bread to rolls – hundreds of different tastes and textures.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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