Tuesday, February 5, 2013

PROBLEM:  Need a fun theme for entertaining on a budget that creates conversation at the same time?  

SOLUTION: Choose something very basic, simple - something everyone can relate to that is easy on the wallet.... BREAD!

Whether you are from elite royalty and live in a castle; a homeless penniless pauper who seeks your daily meal from a soup kitchen; a convict in jail or an everyday working class citizen or elementary school child - bread is a staple food known to man around the world.  Bread crosses all religions, all cultures and it is one of the oldest foods in existence.   Bread has been mentioned in prayer, in song, in poems, featured in paintings and has even been referred to as a slang term for money in a variety of contexts. 

Even with all the carb-free diets, no matter how you slice it – bread will always be part of life.  It is versatile in accompanying a meal, as a staple or key ingredient within a meal (stuffing/dressing, cutlets, Milanese, crouton and dessert) and it is also a food of peace, comfort and tranquility. 

The French have their boulangeries filled with Baguettes, Brioche and Fougasse.  The Swiss have their Pane Ticinese.  Aussie Aborigines have their Bush bread, while the rest of Australia has Damber bread.  The Irish have their brown bread and soda bread to enjoy with their stews and colcannons. The Germans have Dampfnudel, Pumpernickel and Dinkelbrot.  In England, you will find scones and crumpets. The Italians enjoy their pane di Altamura, Filone and Ciabatta.  The Dutch have their tiger bread.  Jewish folks have bagels and Challah.  In Chile, they enjoy Marraqueta.  Finland, Russia and Scandinavia will bake up loaves of rye. Americans have mostly known Weber, Wonder and Roman Meal wheat in the average household but will drive across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to enjoy its famous sourdough which originated in Europe.  Bread is the most known and sought after food.

Basic bread is made from grain flour, water, some sort of leavening agent (yeast mostly, but can also be made with baking soda or baking powder) sugar (to feed the yeast), salt, butter or shortening.  It doesn’t matter if you are making bread by hand or using a modern-day machine – all traditional loaf bread needs to rise and rest and is best eaten fresh.  

Flatbreads do not use any yeast or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder and cover a wide-range of religious uses including the Catholic communion wafer and as Kosher breads for Jewish holidays including Passover.  Flat breads are also a staple food for making ‘food to go’ – like the tortilla in Mexican culture; the pita in Greek culture and Frybreads and corn bread from Native American culture have crossed over into both Latin American and Caribbean cuisines.  Naan, another kind of flat bread is known throughout Afghanistan, India , Iran and Pakistan.  The bread is smoky and crisp – similar to how a wood-fired pizza crust would taste, with a center that is softer.  It’s baked inside of a tandoor clay oven over a charcoal fire.  In India, naan is not the only bread. Chapati is another kind of unleavened flatbread cooked on a griddle or fried and is served with a meal much like bread of other cultures. 
In India, there is also Roti and perhaps the most versatile of all of their breads as the dough can be made from a wide variety of grains ranging from millet, corn, rice or wheat. It has crossed over into Singapore, Malaysia and in Northern India - Roti can also be savory or made sweet with coconut in the batter and served similarly to a crepe with savory contents, meats and vegetables or served like a dessert with fruit or yogurt. It can be dipped and wrapped.  
When it comes to cultures of the Pacific Rim, most people think that bread is replaced mostly by rice. And while rice is a staple starch for most Asian countries, each has its own ‘bread’ as well.  The difference in Asian culture breads is that the breads are unleavened and they are usually sweet breads, but not cake-like as the American quick-bread (banana bread, for example).  They vary from chewy sweetened breads to bun or roll type breads and pastries. Many recipes do use a rice flour in place of wheat flour and this affects the texture of Asian bread products.  Most Asian breads are not baked, they are crossed-over into the category of crepes and are often griddled.  But you will also see that Asian breads are bamboo-steamed or deep fried. This is mostly because ovens are not normally in most Asian kitchens.  However there are exceptions… 

In Japan there is Japanese curry bread.  This bread is usually baked in an oven or deep fried – think of it like an American chicken pot-pie of sorts or English Shepherd’s Pie, where Japanese curry is put inside of dough, rolled in Japanese Panko bread crumbs and baked.  This is NOT native to the Japanese culture at all – and it is now more of a recent phenomenon since being introduced in anime as a food.  But this is one of two savory baked bread exceptions in Asian culture.  The other is from the Philippines. 

In the Philippines, a yeast bread called Pan de Sal (originally introduced from the Spanish) has transformed itself with time.  It started off as a savory bread like the French Baguette but changed its flavor to become a sweet bread when availability of flour kept declining, thus the recipe had to change to replace the flour with something else.  As of only a couple of years ago, the recipe has changed for a third time, this time replacing any flour product with vegetable squash puree, and now returning to savory once again as Yellow Pan de Sal.

Vietnam which was occupied by the French has many breads.  And while most of the bakeries have taken on many of the French breads and pastries, you will also find many recipes using rice flour instead of wheat flour, like the Vietnamese version of the French baguette called banh mi. 

In China, there is Ping – which is a flat-bread crepe style bread, but they also have a steamed or deep-fried dough called Mantou which is more of a bun and traditionally found as a street-food of China.  These buns are filled or unfilled and the buns tastes similarly bland like regular American white bread, however you won’t ever find this bread baked in an oven.  If these Mantou buns are filled you will know them under the term ‘bao’ – like char siu bao (pork filled buns) in the Chinese culture and as ‘mantuu’ in the Mongolian culture.  In Turkey and Persia – you will find them under the name manti or manty.  Mantou can also go from savory to sweet – just by adding sweetened condensed milk and suddenly it becomes more of a dessert bread.  In Japan you will find Mantou - but you will know them as the sweet confection filled with sweet bean paste and called manju. The texture is more of a chewy rice mochi texture and is served as a dessert.

Take this manju concept and now merge it with the look of the Jewish bagel… the end result?  Anpan bread.  Anpan is a sweet Azuki bean-paste filled bun which has been in existence since 1875.  

In Japan, China and Taiwan, a common bread is called Melonpan bread.  It’s a sweet bread that can be found in bakeries throughout these countries.  Think of this sweet bread served up similarly to a doughnut or pastry, or maybe even a waffle of sorts in a huge mound ball shape.  These Melonpan breads are flavored with chocolate, maple, caramel and other fillings.  The outside of the bread is what makes this universally known by its markings with a crossed pattern design (think of American lattice pies).  Japanese culture refer to this as the sun and their version of the bread is light, airy, and firm.  While Chinese culture refers to it like a pineapple bun, more flaky but soft and more dense. 

Bread makes the world go around.  And no matter how you eat your favorite kind of bread – on the side or as part of a main dish, as a sandwich or dipped into a soup or stew or as a dessert, bread is the center of the world …when you break it and enjoy it among friends. 

Give us this day our daily bread.  Know where your bread is buttered.  And know that no matter what – enjoying your bread is the best thing since sliced bread. 



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