March 30, 2012

the boy with the bread

Blogger's Note: This is the first in a three-week Reading in the Kitchen series covering foods from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. As indulgent as it seems to write about food from a trilogy so focused on hunger, I was intrigued by all the foods mentioned in it -- and there are a lot. Stopping at three hardly covers it. 

Read Katniss' Dandelion salad recipe here
Read Mellark Bakery's Apple and Goat Cheese Tart recipe here.

Even before the reaping that sent Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark to the 74th Annual Hunger Games, their lives were connected by a loaf of bread. Bread Peeta purposefully burned to give Katniss and her starving family even though it meant punishment for him.

Though they never exchanged words, Katniss always felt she owed Peeta for his gift. In her eyes this puts them at odds from the get go. Only one person can survive the games. How can she even consider killing the boy with the bread who saved her life?

Throughout the story, Katniss refers to Peeta as the boy with the bread. Other baked goods, wild game and gathered foods appear in the books, but this one was especially important. Katniss describes the loaves as hearty, with raisins and nuts in it. I imagined whole grains, raisins and walnuts, because it sounds super hearty. When I set out to recreate this dish, I kept that description in mind.

Confession: With all the baking I have done in my life, I have never made bread from scratch. I watched my mom do it, I watched our bread machine do it. But aside from quick breads, this was my first encounter with a rising dough. This meant I needed to research bread making or risk blowing it.

The first lesson I learned: If a recipe calls for bread flour, it means bread flour. All purpose does not work as a substitute. Bread flour has a higher concentration of gluten, which creates elasticity in the dough among other things. If you try subbing another kind of flour, you will not have the desired results. Plus, my mom told me I had to use bread flour to make bread. If Mom says it, it must be so.

Imagine my horror when I went to my local grocery store and saw how many options of flour there were. Up until a few months ago, I bought all purpose and only all purpose. Since taking on Reading in the Kitchen, I have branched out and tried others, but I am by no means a pro.

When I finally found a package labeled "bread flour," I was disappointed with it. Not only was it white flour (not what I imagined for this recipe), but it cost several dollars more than all purpose. That went against my instinct to spend as little money as possible to make these dishes. What Would Katniss Do? She'd look for a cheaper alternative.

Fortunately, I found it when Bob's Red Mill came to the rescue. This is by no means an endorsement, and I get nothing for saying it, but I have come to rely on these products lately. They have a lot of whole grain options and come in reasonable package sizes -- ideal when you are a single woman interested in portion control. Plus, while not the the cheapest options on the market, they are reasonable. I spent less than $3 on my flour, which was several dollars less than the alternative.

I settled on the Whole Wheat Bread Mix. In addition to containing wheat flour, sunflower seeds and dry molasses, it also came with a packet of yeast. You can buy these easily enough on their own, but it was nice to have. The rest of the shopping was easy. I picked up a bag of sun-dried raisins and chopped walnuts. Again, I went for the cheapest option in both of these - WWKD, right?

From there, it was easy. I mixed together the dry ingredients, added oil and then warm tap water. Make sure the water is warm, not cold or hot. It activates the yeast. Next, I kneaded the dough, placed it in a covered bowl and let it rise for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, I placed a pizza stone in the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. That's another tip I learned in my research. When making loaves without a bread pan (which was how I imagined the bread in the book) the pizza stone helps bake the bread evenly. I was excited about this, because my parents gave my a pizza stone two Christmases ago, and I hadn't used it yet. I'm more of a frozen or take-out pizza gal, and I was saving it for a special occasion like this.

After 45 minutes, the dough doubled in size and was ready for baking. I decided to divide the dough into two loaves. When I did a quick search, I found it is best to split the dough before you let it rise. I cut it with a pizza cutter, and didn't have any problems. I formed two loaves and placed them on the pizza stone, which was already heated.

I let it bake for 30 minutes before checking on it. Now, this is the best tip I learned. In addition to giving the loaves a once over or using a food thermometer (which I most certainly don't have) you can also check it by slapping the bread. OK, technically everything I read said you can tap the bread to check, but I interpreted it my way. When you tap the bottom of bread, it will make a thud, like a drum, if done. I decided to cut myself some slack if it was overdone. After all, the bread Peeta gave Katniss was technically burnt.

Sure enough, I bitch slapped the bread and heard the thud. And it wasn't burnt. You can't even imagine how dorky and excited I was. My sister, who was over to try it, gave me plenty of looks that told me I was nuts. But I didn't care. The bread looked beautiful, it smelled fantastic and it was done.

We let the bread cool before digging in, and the effort was totally worth it. I found it delicious, and I hadn't been without food for days like Katniss. It tasted exactly as I imagined: hearty. And I'm glad I love it, because I'll be eating it for the next week. The bread itself was be good, but with the nuts and raisins, it tastes more like a special treat. I wasn't kidding about the heartiness, either. I ate a piece for breakfast yesterday, along with an egg and veggie sausage, and I wasn't hungry until early afternoon. Breads usually speed up my appetite, but not in this case.

Well worth the effort, making this bread was an interesting experience. Not only did I learn a little about the science behind the ingredients, but it gave me time to consider the significance the bread had in the book. Plus, I have a ridiculous crush on Peeta, so the teeny bopper inside of me was happy, too.
Peeta's Bread
19 ounces whole grain wheat bread flour
1 packet bread yeast
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup sun-dried raisins
2 tablespoons cooking oil
11 ounces warm tap water
Cornstarch (to cover surface)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place pizza stone on top shelf. Mix together the dry ingredients. Add warm tap water to mix and kneed dough. Once it reaches an elastic state, cut into two equal portions. Place in large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise 45 minutes, or until bread doubles in size. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving. Makes two loaves of eight servings each (16 total).
(Per Serving) 177 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, 5 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber.
Don't forget to check back next Friday for another recipe from The Hunger Games.

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