Yeast of Eden

Different types of bread. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar  

Having moved from Bengaluru six years ago, one of the first instances of feeling at home in Goa was when I switched from eating sliced bread to the hot, freshly baked pao that was delivered to my doorstep every morning. There is a veritable difference between biting into a piece of pao — crumby, chewy that forces your jaws to do some extra work — and a slice of commercially-made white bread — with its airy waif-like texture that makes it a bit like biting into a cloud — and it took no time at all to pick a side. Decidedly handmade, irregularly shaped, rustic and with a much shorter life than a loaf of bread, pao has a definite appeal that commercially-made bread just doesn’t. That the bread came from a bakery just down the road, delivered hot, right to my doorstep, was an added bonus.

For many weeks, the excitement of waking up to the paowallah’s cycle horn tooting his arrival, made the experience of buying and eating bread even sweeter. I’d wait for him to lift the plastic sheets tightly secured over the massive breadbasket strapped to his cycle. A tiny bit, just enough to slide his hands in to grab the required number of loaves, was enough to release that sugary, grainy, mildly sour aroma of fresh bread that heralds breakfast time instantly. What is it about the aroma of freshly baked bread that instantly kicks our salivary glands into action?

“One reason to bake bread is to fill up your kitchen with that aroma. Even if the bread turns out badly, the smell of it baking never fails to improve a house or a mood… freshly baked bread is the ultimate olfactory synecdoche for hominess. Which, when you think about it, is odd, since how many of us grew up in homes where bread was ever baked? Yet somehow that sense memory and its association with a happy domesticity endure,” says Michael Pollan, in his seminal book Cooked, which deals with the most basic way in which the elements play a role in transforming the food we eat. In it, Pollan has an entire chapter dedicated to air and the role it plays in infusing dough with a network of pockets to elevate to a fluffy, airy, yet stretchy, moreish cooked wonder, that the mere aroma of infuses a warm, happy, pleasant feeling.

It is this very quote that makes a promising beginning to Crumbs — a collection of bread stories and recipes for the Indian kitchen, by Saee Koranne-Khandekar. Yes, at its most basic level, it is a cookbook centred on bread, yet it is also so much more. Crumbs explores bread, tracing back to its beginnings 10,000 years ago, when it was discovered in all probability, by accident, and traverses its journey to present day, to bread as we know it, in so many different forms.

Crumbs covers a formidable collection of Indian and international breads, with entire sections dedicated to specific categories like basic breads, international favourites, artisan breads, classic Indian breads and presents them under leavened, unleavened, yeasted, fried, and rustic breads. With recipes broken down simply, in a way that you can replicate in your own home, the book demystifies everything from Sheermal to Stollen, kulchas to croissants and Brun to Brioche. Khandekar has painstakingly curated this detailed collection of breads, interspersed with evocative anecdotes from her childhood that will definitely spark off a combination of nostalgia and a hunger to rush to your kitchen and bake bread. And bake your own bread you will, because the book is packed with invaluable lessons and the science of bread making, from the course she took in bakery and confectionery.

The book is a wonderful guide, holding your hand through the process of working with yeast, handling dough, understanding flour strengths, gauging Indian temperatures and still getting exactly the results you need.

“There are plenty of recipes for international breads, but you try and replicate them using your atta and in our weather conditions, and it doesn’t always work. So I thought it would be a nice idea to have a book on bread for the Indian context.”

Why bread and not a cookbook with a wider scope? Khandekar is candid about her experiences teaching bread-making. “People are fascinated by the process itself, but they’re very afraid of making bread,” she says. “They’re not too comfortable using yeast, they think it is intimidating. But the truth is if you are making rotis and chapattis in your home every day, then you can make any kind of bread.”

“I think it’s the sugars and carbohydrates. When you smell and taste bread, it instantly triggers something comforting. Even a simple phulka with ghee is enough to make you feel it. Most often, you don’t even need an accompaniment,” says Khandekar. Whether it is a delicate thin-crust pizza or fluffy, thick naan, the comforting feeling of biting into bread is universal, and Crumbs cashes in on that feeling.

If you’ve ever looked at a batch of chapatti ka atta and asked yourself if you could make a loaf of bread from it, Crumbs holds the answers. Khandekar successfully takes the complexity out of the recipes, paring it down to something that requires an understanding of the process, rather than expertise.

Revati Upadhya is based in Goa and writes on food, travel, culture and lifestyle.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 5:43:46 AM |

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