Bread in Half the Time
The history of cooking is also largely the history of convenience. Cooking over open fires was supplanted by the wood stove, which in turn gave way to the gas and electric stoves, complemented by the microwave oven. At each evolutionary stage, cooking has become a little less primitive and a little more a means to an end. But not every convenience wins our heart: when, for example, did you last use an electric knife?
In "How To Make Bread," an article which ran in our charter issue of Cook's Illustrated, food editor Pam Anderson reviewed a recipe for No Pain Ordinaire that appears in Bread In Half the Time (Crown, 1991). The recipe uses rapid-rise yeast, a food processor, and a microwave oven to make bread in as little as 90 minutes. One of the authors, Linda West Eckhardt, wrote to say that she felt that we were unfairly siding with tradition when in fact this new method was a major-league time-saver that did not sacrifice "quality for convenience." The author pointed to a taste test conducted by Julia Child and her staff, who compared one of Julia's seven-hour French bread recipes with the microwave version and found no discernable difference in texture and taste. As a final commentary, Julia herself invited me over for champagne and caviar and a first-hand demonstration of the No Pain Ordinaire. As she put it, "Some people are so holy about bread. What does it matter as long as it tastes good?"
Following this prodding from Julia, I went home to try it myself. After 90 minutes, I turned out a respectable loaf, with good texture and good flavor. I then made the Master Recipe for Basic Bread (page 24) from our charter issue. Using the food processor for mixing and some kneading, the simple recipe allowed me to turn out an excellent loaf in a little over four hours.
In reality, the No Pain Ordinaire was somewhat more time consuming. It took about 45 minutes of constant attention-- the process requires repeated heating and resting in a microwave oven-- whereas the more traditional recipe took no more than 20 minutes at the outset; most of the rest of the process was unattended. I will gladly concede the issue of quality-- the two loaves were quite similar-- but the traditional method was actually more convenient.
Nevertheless, I will add No Pain Ordinaire to my cooking repertoire; there are times when I need a 90-minute bread. Still, when I asked my wife, Adrienne, to comment on the bread-making methods, she dissented, "But I like to knead bread." She reminded me of the essential point: quality and convenience are not the only yardsticks for assessing cooking methods.
For many of us, there is something "holy" about making bread. The kneading of dough, cooking over an open fire, or spending an afternoon collecting wild blackberries for jam are not always the most "efficient" ways of producing food, but I and many of our readers often choose them. In doing so, we are participating in a kind of modern primitivism that serves as a necessary counterpoint to modern technology. For what is more primitive than preparing food? Although most of us usually have an hour or less to put dinner on the table, the kitchen is a place to which we turn for many other reasons, for a different kind of fulfillment and nourishment. And when we do, we implicitly recognize that cooking is about the process as much as it is about the product.