Lifestyle & Culture

Alice Verberne in France: Baking bread is the new chill pill, an antidote to the pandemic

After being confined to our homes for a year now, we see the trends emerging and the good news is that many of them are giant leaps in emotional improvement. A popular expression circulating the web is that one would come out of COVID-19 confinement as a drunk, a hunk, a chunk or a monk. Well, it looks like many opted for the chunk-monk combination by turning to the meditative qualities of baking.

Sources seem to confirm the trend. The Guardian reported in their article “Kneading to Relax” post that many people fired up their ovens to relieve stress: Citing baking as a positive exercise in mindfulness and distraction from world issues in order to relieve anxiety. According to Reuters, when the first round of pandemic confinement was announced, flour was sold out and the French grain industry had to scramble to deal with delivery logistics.

Looking back, it seems to all fit together quite smartly. As the crisis worsened, governments prioritized food supply as part of the
emergency measures.

Groceries are one of the few resources we have easy access to over the long haul. So it makes sense that many of us are using our nourishment not only for comfort but also as a form of creative expression.

News reports informed us we would be facing confinement for an undetermined amount of time and stores that provided materials for other creative outlets would remain closed. It seems like a no-brainer that we all headed to the mega-markets and bought out, among other things, baking supplies.

When given such a dilemma, the French (and much of the world) turned to one of their favorite pastimes: cooking. Rolling, mixing and kneading actually do have a calming quality. Studies suggest that people who take a turn at small, creative projects report feeling more relaxed and happier. There is the fundamentally satisfying benefit to learning something new, and perhaps an even greater gratification in getting to eat it. And of course the smell of fresh baked goods is such a sensory delight.

For those out there who would like a fun home baking recipe, why not try focaccia? This flat bread is versatile enough to use for sandwiches, a side dish or the base for a toppings similar to a pizza.

FOCACCIA

This recipe is adapted from the book written by Dorie Greenspan entitle “Baking with Julia,” which is based on the Public Broadcast (PBS) television series. It makes three focacce.

You’ll need:

All photos by Alice Verberne

2 ½ cups tepid water

2 Tablespoons active dry yeast

¼ cup olive oil

6 ½ cups flour

4 teaspoons salt

Cornmeal for dusting the dough before cooking

Sea salt

Herbs of choice (rosemary, sage, oregano)

Vegetables for decoration (optional)

Directions:

Whisk ½ cup of the water and the yeast in a bowl and set aside until yeast
dissolves (5 minutes).

Meanwhile pour 1 ¾ cups warm water into a large measuring cup and add the olive oil.

Set aside.

In a separate bowl, stir the flour and salt together and set aside. Pour the water-oil mixture into the yeast mixture and blend. Add about half the flour mixture and stir until blended. Transfer to mixer bowl and attach the dough hook to the mixer. Add the remaining flour and mix for about three minutes to combine.

If the dough appears dry or stiff, add a few drops of warm water and scrape the bowl and hook if necessary to incorporate the water to create malleable dough. Mix for about ten minutes. Your dough should be slightly moist, extremely elastic and will clean the side of the bowl.

Stretch a piece of the dough to form a “window.” If the dough has a transparent pane that does not break, it is properly mixed.

Transfer the dough to a work surface and form it into a ball. Oil a salad bowl and place the dough in the bowl coating all sides with oil.

Cover with protective film and allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about an hour (until double in bulk).

Fold the dough down on itself to deflate and rise again for 45 minutes.
Fold the dough over on itself again to deflate it. Place on a work surface and
divide the dough into three equal parts and shape into balls. Place each ball of dough in an oiled gallon size zip lock bag and place in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours. This process helps develop the bubbles in the
dough.

Remove the dough 1 ½ hours before you want to cook it and remove from the bag. Place the dough on a floured surface and dust the top with cornmeal, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for an hour. Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. If using a pizza stone (place in the cold oven before preheating). If using baking sheets, line with parchment paper.

Dust the surface of either with cornmeal to prevent the dough from sticking. Shape the dough by pressing down gently with your palm taking care not to overwork. Stretch into a 10-12 inch square.

Transfer the focaccia to the cornmeal-dusted surface and cut tic-tac-toe pattern slashes using a sharp knife or press your fingers into the dough to create indentations. Brush with olive oil. Decorate with herbs and vegetables as desired. Sprinkle with fine sea salt.

Place into the hot oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until they are golden
brown. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Serving suggestion: Serve with a selection of salami and hard cheese.

Alice’s bonus baking tips: Tried and true methods for proofing and rising dough

If you are a novice, don’t get discouraged when reading the overwhelming information out there on the different temperatures, amount of leavening and rising times. Take heart, baking bread is not only a science but also an art.

In the past bakers didn’t have lots of gadgets to control the process, they used their senses. Body heat is one method commonly used to ensure the water added to the yeast is within the correct range: Simply put a few drops on the inside of your wrist. If you can’t feel either hot or cold from the drops, the temperature is acceptable.

Another easy way to know you will not kill your yeast with overheated water is to stick your finger in the water. If you can leave your finger in the water, then it should be fine to use for dissolving your yeast. Others use a thermometer to ensure a proper temperature of around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

To leaven the dough, a chef once told me, “Bread is a bit like a tropical plant; it does well in temperatures around the mid-70s.” Controlling the environment also helps predict the rising process.

Most folks put their dough on a warm surface. Swaddled in an electric blanket on low or a hot water bottle: Yes, they both seem to work. Other popular locations are on top of the dryer, dishwasher or in a not too warm oven.

The artisan baker in our French village tests the oven by sticking his hand inside and reporting that the temperature is sufficient. How do you know? I ask. “Because it is cozy enough for a house pet to curl up inside and take a nap,” he responds.

LISA, LEFT, WITH HER VILLAGE BAKER

About the author:

Alice Verberne is a freelance artist and writer who purchased the École des Vatelottes in 1999. The historic building is located three hours southeast of Paris in the rural hilltop village of Bourmont, France. Her mission is to create an atelier as a meeting point to connect visitors to local artisans. She works as a consultant for GB Marketing Research Solutions writing feasibility studies for entrepreneurs.

See all of Alice’s posts here.

See more about France on Dispatches here.

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