Bagels are round, chewy rolls about 10 cm in diameter with a hole in the middle. They are in fact much like a doughnut in appearance, but the resemblance ends there (or it should!). The taste and texture of the bagel is very different to the doughnut although they have been referred to as ‘cement doughnuts’ or doughnuts with rigor mortis!
The first commercial bagel is said to have been created by an unknown Viennese baker who wanted to honour Polish King John III Sobieski who repulsed the Tusk invasion, thereby saving Vienna. As a symbol of King John’s skill as a horseman, the baker formed yeast dough into a ring, supposedly resembling a stirrup. The Austrian word for ‘stirrup’ is beugel.
It also was traditional in Poland to give a bagel to a woman in childbirth. However, bagels are said to have been around long before the 17th century. A bagel was reputed to be found in a Uygar (pronounced wee-ghur) tomb around 100 AD. The Uygar people come from north-west China and have a bread that resembles a bagel in shape and taste.
Bagels have been considered a Jewish ethnic food until recently. However, they are very popular in the United States where bagel consumption is said to equal one bagel per week per person. On the east coast of the United States it is usually used as a breakfast bread but can also be used as a sandwich bread.
Here in New Zealand bagels are becoming more well-known and popular and are often used as a sandwich bread here. Bagels can be eaten fresh or toasted before topping.
Bagels aren’t made in the same way as bread. Before baking the bagels are boiled or poached. Boiling gelatinises the starch on the surface of the dough giving a glossy exterior with distinguishes them from regular bread rolls. The boiling process also sets the outside structure of the roll so the bagel retains its shape during the baking process.
Bagels have a close, tight, chewy interior. Some bagels aren’t boiled first but are baked with heavy steam or are egg washed to give the glossy exterior. These products are baked in this way to save time and labour costs, but are better described as crusty rolls rather than bagels.
Flatbreads were the earliest breads made by humans. The most basic are still a mixture of flour, water and salt kneaded into a pliable dough before being shaped by hand and baked. Wheat is the most popular choice of grain although barley, millet, corn, oats, rice and rye are used to make various flatbreads.
Flatbreads are known to have been baked in settlements from the Euphrates Valley in Iraq where a baker’s oven from 4000 BC was excavated on the site of Babylon, all the way down to Egypt where they are recorded on tomb inscriptions dating from 3000 BC. Interestingly in South America the Mayan people had developed corn tortillas while Neolithic people are thought to have discovered the secret of flour after cooking a mixture of grain and water that made a kind of porridge. The next discovery was that pounding the grain released flour to make a drier mix which could be cooked on flat stones by a fire. Because these flatbreads baked quickly, nomadic herdsmen were able to bake them on flat stones in the hot sun while tending flocks of sheep or goats.
This discovery of flour was the beginning of agriculture. Flatbreads became a staple source of food. The area between Babylon and Egypt was well suited to wheat growing and prospered. Flatbreads were eaten at every meal, functioning as plates with other foods being served on them or as implements for eating other things such as stews or sauces. They are still very important amongst the people of India and the Middle East, and have spread to Western countries where their popularity is growing because they are so versatile. They can wrap (tortilla), hold (pita) and form the base of substantial foods (pizza).
Flatbreads can be single or double layered:
Single layered flatbreads can be made without yeast from a firm dough, e.g. tortillas from Mexico, or from runny mixtures poured onto a hotplate as with American pancakes and French crepes. Alternatively they can be leavened (risen by a process of yeast fermentation), as with the baladi from Egypt.
Double layered flatbreads are leavened (with fresh yeast or a sourdough remnant of a former mix) and risen twice before baking. Baking at a very high oven temperature seals steam inside the bread, causing it to blow up like a football during the baking. This forms a pocket that can later be filled with other food. Egyptian pita bread is a good example of this pocket bread.
By the end of the Stone Age (1600 BC), Egypt had exported the leavening process around the Mediterranean. It spread with flatbreads along the trade routes and wherever Mediterranean conquerors went. Now flatbreads like chapati are baked throughout India, Tibet, Mongolia and into China; lavash in Iran and Turkey; bannock in Scotland; and rye crisp in Scandinavia. In New Zealand Maori cooked flatbreads from hinau berry kernels, from raupo pollen and from the cabbage tree interior. From the 1850s they grew wheat from grains brought out by early European settlers. It was much easier to process into bread than the indigenous raw materials and Maori developed it into a fried bread, parao parai.
Bread sustains life and consequently flatbreads have important religious connections for people around the world. Flatbread was offered to gods and buried with bodies to ensure food for the afterlife. It was baked for seasonal festivals. Matzo is the unleavened bread that religious Jews bake to celebrate the Feast of Passover. Jesus Christ referred to himself as the bread of life. His crucifixion was remembered by a cross cut into the sourdough flatbreads made in Europe in the Middle Ages and Greeks still bake a flat sesame lagana during the Lenten fast leading up to Easter, which celebrates Christ’s return from death.
Flat breads are made throughout most of the world. Examples are pita (from the Middle East), chapati and naan (India), tortilla (Mexico) and focaccia (Italy). The bread may be leavened (have a raising agent of yeast or sourdough) or unleavened.There are two ways of shaping flat breads; the dough can be sheeted (rolled thinly) and cut to shape, or the bulk dough can be divided into pieces, rounded and then sheeted.
Pita bread is made with a mixture of flour, salt, yeast and water. Fermentation time is short so the dough does not rise. When baked, heat quickly seals the top and bottom surfaces and the rapid expansion of gases between them tends to blow the crusts apart forming the pocket.
Naan is also a leavened bread. It is baked by placing flattened pieces of dough onto the walls of an urn shaped oven. These breads are usually baked in an extremely hot oven with temperatures of 450°C – 600°C.
Chapati is an unleavened round flat bread from Northern India. Chapatis are enjoyed with most meals, wrapped around meat or vegetables.
Tortillas are an unleavened flatbread from Mexico. They are made from cornflour or wheat flour. They can be soft or crisp, depending on how long they are baked. When they are soft they are used as burritos and when crisp are served as tostadas or corn chips.
Modern methods of baking variety breads
New Zealand bakers use conventional bakery equipment and materials to make variety breads. Starting from a basic, white bread formula we can obtain a huge variety of bread types just by changing or adding some ingredients. For example, bread lightly sprinkled with sesame seeds makes the bread look distinctively different without requiring any major changes in processing.
Ingredients often include rye, soya, malt, honey, nuts, fruits, seeds, cheese and herbs. Use of some ingredients means that the bread making process has to be altered. For example, dried fruit or soaked grains added to the dough requires decreasing the amount of water added to recipe.
In bakeries, variety breads are likely to be more labour intensive, have a lower production rate and higher ingredient costs. The greater variety of ingredients take more space and require more specialised production. Equipment needs to be adaptable enough to handle the variety doughs but specialised equipment may be required to make some product types, especially the traditional ethnic breads.
A lot of the individuality of variety breads comes from their distinctive moulded shapes, size and patterns on the loaves. Markings on the top of the loaf can be decorative and individual. Sometimes the patterns on the loaves have a special function. For example the cuts on the top of bread allow the steam to escape and prevent the loaf from cracking or breaking apart. There are many shapes such as the cob (round ), coburg (like a cob but with a cross cut on the top) and plait. Loaves can be large or small, high or flat.
Until dry yeast was invented in the nineteenth century sourdoughs were the only leavenings (raising agents) used in yeast bread. Bread made by the sourdough method makes a hearty, acid bread with thick crusts that will last up to a week.
Sourdough bread can be made from either a bought sourdough mix, a “starter” or by keeping aside dough from a previous loaf. No yeast, or only a little, is needed to make the bread rise. A starter which is sometimes called levain, can be made in about five days. Wild yeasts are always found in the air we breathe. When flour and water are mixed together and left in a room, the wild yeasts land in the mix, feed on the sugars in the flour and multiply. They release alcohol and carbon dioxide and cause the mixture to ferment.
After only one day the mixture will start to smell sour and will expand. It can be used after four days. A little dried yeast can be added when the flour and water is first mixed. The starter can be used within a day and is less sour. In past centuries baking was a weekly event. A little piece of dough was kept aside and not baked. A few days later the piece was mixed with more flour and water so the yeast in the dough could start to grow again. This process was repeated until it was used for making the next lot of bread.
Potato bread (rewena paraoa) was first baked in New Zealand in the mid 19th century. The starter is potato cooking water! San Francisco sourdough is a delicious sourdough famous throughout the United States, and has its own distinctive “area specific” sour flavour.
Some well known hearth breads include French sticks (baguettes) and Vienna bread which were traditionally baked directly on the hearth, that is, the brick floor of the oven.
Some bakeries overseas place brick or stone floors in their ovens so they can make this a selling point. The oven for hearth breads requires steam to make the bread crusty. Special pans and baskets are now used to give loaf varieties a different shape and distinctive appearance. In some European countries, the bread ingredients are legally controlled and traditional hearth breads are permitted to contain only wheat flour, water, yeast and salt. Bread with only these ingredients and without fats or emulsifiers will not keep for long.
Traditional varieties are bought daily in Europe and do not need emulsifiers because they are bought just for that day’s meal time. Many European hearth breads have cuts made on top before baking. The cuts are made to the right depth with a razor sharp knife. These cuts in the crust minimize side bursting and give breads an attractive appearance. The defining characteristics of French sticks are its shape and light, open cell structure. The crust should be crisp and have five or seven well angled cuts in the top surface.
In France, French bread is only allowed to contain flour, water, yeast and salt. Vienna bread was traditionally made with the strong high protein flour from central Europe and baked in an oven filled with steam to produce a thin glazed crust. These loaves should have a glossy, crisp crust and open crumb structure. Cuts are made parallel.