Saturday, 12 November 2011

Elephant No. 41: Bread

For today's elephant, I decided to bake elephant-shaped bread. I've been baking bread since I was about eight years old, but I've never actually made fancy-shaped bread before. I think I might have made a braided bread once, but never anything more elaborate.

People have been baking bread for at least 30,000 years, and there is evidence to suggest that leavened bread (bread that rises) was developed in prehistoric times. The earliest bread may have been a disc made from the starchy roots of plants: the roots were beaten or ground on a flat stone, which was then placed over a fire to cook. By 10,000 B.C., as agricultural practices spread, grains became the primary ingredient in bread.

Interestingly, because yeast spores are everywhere—including the surface of cereal crops—any dough will eventually rise on its own, even if left completely alone. In earlier times, bread dough was left exposed to air before being baked, allowing airborne yeasts to do the work. By the early first century A.D., Pliny the Elder was reporting that the Gauls and Iberians (peoples of Western and Southern Europe) used foam skimmed from the top of beer to make bread that was lighter and fluffier than those in other regions.

In places where wine was more prevalent than beer, a paste of grape juice and flour—or of wheat bran soaked in wine—was left to begin fermenting, providing an alternate source of yeast. The yeast used in bread today is still the same organism that causes fermentation in wine and beer.

The most common source of leavening, however, was a piece of uncooked dough from the previous day's bread, used as a "sourdough" starter. This was the most common form of leavening used by pioneers and homesteaders in North America.

Although bread-making became mechanized in the early twentieth century, it wasn't until 1961 that production times were dramatically cut. The Chorleywood bread process, developed that year, involves working the dough intensely, which reduces the amount of time the bread needs to rise. This is the process now used in most large-scale bread factories around the world.

Bread has always had considerable historical and metaphorical significance. Its central importance as a foodstuff has made it synonymous with the necessities of life in many cultures. It has also found its way into everyday parlance. Languages around the world contain references to concepts such as the family "breadwinner", a country's agricultural "breadbasket", and "the greatest thing since sliced bread".

The more recent use of the word "bread" as a synonym for money appears to derive from Cockney rhyming slang: "bread and honey" as the word for "money" was eventually shortened to "bread" and the related "dough".

Throughout history, bread has also had political importance. At various times, rising prices for bread grains have caused riots to erupt and governments to fall. And, for centuries, those who have tampered with breads, either by adding fillers or otherwise cheating bread-buyers, have faced stiff prosecution.

For today's elephant, I liked the idea of a slightly sweet egg bread. Made with yeast, it will require two risings before being baked. For those of you in a bread-baking mood, here is the recipe I used.

Basic Sweet Bread

1 cup (250 ml) milk
1/3 cup (80 ml) white sugar
1/3 cup (80 ml) butter
1 tablespoon (15 ml) active dry yeast
4 cups (1 litre) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) salt
2 eggs
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, combine milk, sugar and butter. Heat until barely warm to the touch, then remove from heat and stir in yeast. If the mixture is hot, let it cool to lukewarm, or the yeast will be killed and won't rise.

Let mixture stand until foamy—about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, stir flour and salt together. Mix in eggs, oil and yeast mixture. Beat until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl in a sort of ragged dough.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth, elastic and slightly shiny—about ten minutes or so. You can't really over-knead bread dough, so even if you think you're done, it's not a bad idea to knead it for a couple of minutes longer.

Grease a large bowl with a tablespoon of oil. Put the dough in the bowl and coat it with the oil. Cover with a damp tea towel and let stand in a warm place (but not overly warm) until it doubles in size—about an hour. Don't let it over-rise, or the yeast will be exhausted and won't rise well during the second rising.

Punch down dough to release excess gas, and knead for about a minute. Shape dough as desired and let rise for 20 to 25 minutes until almost double again.

Bake in a preheated 375˚ (190˚C) oven for about 20 to 30 minutes, until top of bread is golden brown.

I didn't really know what I was doing in making this shape. I looked for instructions online, but a search for "shaped bread" results either in information on braiding and making tripartite rolls, or galleries of pretty bread shapes. However, I vaguely remembered that, if you want dough to stick to dough, you should wet it. So I did that in various places, and even made the dough wet enough that I could "blend" the joins.

I made the elephant in several blocks. I made the head shape first, then the body, then joined them at the neck. Then I added legs, and a trunk. Next came the ear, then tusk, then blanket and embellishments. The last thing I added was the tail. To finish up, I poked a few holes in things like the eye and the flower on the blanket, and added some wrinkles to the trunk.

After everything was assembled and I liked the way it looked, I let it rise again. In its first rising, the dough rose very little, so I wasn't expecting the elephant to puff up very much in its second rising. And indeed it didn't. Although this meant that it would probably be dense and heavy when baked, the bonus is that it will hold its shape quite nicely, and not look like it got weirdly inflated in all the wrong places.

I'm not sure why it didn't rise very much. I certainly kneaded it more than enough, so it wasn't that. It might be that the milk and butter mixture was still a tad too warm when I added the yeast. Or the yeast may have been on its last legs. Or it may have been this particular recipe. I wasn't desperate to eat the final result, so it didn't really matter this time.

Before baking, I brushed it with egg yolk. I also ended up with enough bread for a dozen small rolls, which I baked at the same time.

The final result did rise a bit, but I wasn't sure it would be edible, and thought maybe this was more like bread sculpture, rather than actual bread. I taste-tested one of the rolls and, although the bread is heavy and dense, it was surprisingly good.

It wasn't particularly time-consuming to create the elephant, and I like the way it turned out. I also like that it even kept the indents in the trunk and the concave shape of the ear. But next time, I think I might try making the dough in an electric bread machine. And buy newer yeast.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the oddest elephant exploits was a high dive made by a female circus elephant called Tuffi. In July 1950, circus director Franz Althoff had the bright idea of transporting three-year-old Tuffi in a monorail carriage through Wuppertal, Germany. Planned as a publicity stunt, the monorail ride backfired disastrously when Tuffi objected part-way through the journey. Trumpeting and running wildly through the wagon, Tuffi ultimately broke through a carriage window, plunging 12 metres (43 feet) into the river below.

Althoff rushed down to help Tuffi out of the water. Although Tuffi suffered only minor injuries, passengers in the carriage had panicked, and some had been seriously hurt. Both Althoff and the official who had allowed the stunt were fined.

In 1968, Tuffi was sold to Cirque Alexis Gruß. She died in 1989 at the age of 42—clearly having suffered no lasting ill effects from her adventure. Today, a building near the site of the incident features a painting of Tuffi, and a local dairy has chosen "Tuffi" as their brand name. Tuffi is also depicted on many Wuppertal souvenir items and, in 1970, a children's book by Margeurita Eckel and Ernst-Andreas Ziegler appeared, called Tuffi und die Schewebebahn (loosely translated as Tuffi and the Monorail).

A highly doctored photo of Tuffi and her fateful ride.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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