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Breads And Cereal Products

THAT bread should be called the staff of life seems strange if we look only at the contemporary scene. Surely most of the anaemic windbags of a loaf at the near-by baker's shop could vanish unwept. But breads, and the cereal grains, have not only supported physical life longer than recorded history; our whole Western civilization was made possible by them.

The cultivation of barley and wheat ended nomadic life. Stores of grain in the valley of the Nile and in Mesopotamia meant more than release from the incessant search for food. They enabled people to congregate and made inevitable the development of towns and the specialization of skills and knowledge from which alone could come the emergence of the arts and sciences.

The Egyptians worshipped Isis, daughter of the Earth and the Sky, identified with the Greek goddess Demeter, sister of Zeus, and her later Roman counterpart, Ceres, goddess of the growth of food plants. The Cerealia festivals were great affairs in Italy at least as early as 300 B.C., but the women had also their own secret celebrations for Ceres where, we trust, they whispered the mysteries of making the dough and baking and vowed to keep high standards of breadmaking.

In that region the breads are still wonderful, still the staff of life. We have had many fine lunches on Italian hillsides on fresh breads (pani), a little cheese, some wine, and fresh fruit. Two-thirds of a pound of that bread per person is not too much for lunch; it is the meal and an excellent meal at that. Such bread is made simply of high-protein flour, water, yeast, and a little salt. It has a wonderful nutty crust and it must be eaten fresh.

Most of the bread eaten by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans was made without yeast, and such flat, unleavened breads are still eaten in some regions. It keeps well, it has a fine flavour, but it demands, and perhaps produces, good teeth and jaw muscles.

Try it to see what the old staff of life was like. But we do not insist that all cereal preparations should be hard and tough. We like all the fine things that can be made from cereals - delicate rolls, porridges, spaghetti, and real French bread. Properly prepared, they are good to eat and good nutritionally.

Flours And Bread Ingredients

Cereal grains are seeds of the family of grasses, each containing I the germ of a new plant and a supply of nutriment to take care of the needs of the developing embryo and the start of the new plant. The whole seed is encased in a protective husk which is relatively indigestible. The germ contains protein and some fat, and this, together with the husk, is commonly removed more or less completely in milling to produce refined flours. The resulting flour is an excellent but highly limited type of food, almost pure carbohydrate. The most highly refined flours owe most of their good keeping quality to the fact that the nutriment they provide i is too incomplete for the growth of animals, including "vermin" and insects.

The cereal grains are remarkably stable when stored dry without milling. Merely parching or lightly roasting barley makes tsampa, a staple food in Tibet and the Himalaya region, and parched corn was a stand-by for many American Indian tribes. Scarcely more complicated is the making of gruel or porridge - a little water and salt, boil, and there it is. Bake or simply sundry a thick porridge and you have an unleavened bread. Add yeast to the porridge, wait a bit before baking, and you have a : raised or leavened bread.

Yeasts are microscopic plants that have the ability to convert sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. By providing the proper conditions and proper variety of yeast, one or the other end pro, duct is favoured so we get beer or wine or bread or bun dough lightened by the bubbles of carbon dioxide. The yeasts are good sources of some of the vitamins and are highly nutritious in themselves. Breads as well as cakes and biscuits may also be raised, of course, by baking powder or plain baking soda. Carbon dioxide gas is released from a compound of bicarbonate or carbonate when an acid reacts with it. Pour vinegar on baking soda; the evolution of gas is exactly what occurs in a dough containing baking powder.

These, then, are the basic processes involved in the preparation of all breads and cereal products - parching or roasting, boiling with water, moistening with water and baking, or adding a leavening agent and then baking. How simple and yet how varied the results !

A basic dilemma in food preparation is illustrated in bread-making. The true French, Italian, and Spanish type breads are unsurpassed for flavour when they come from the oven, but they do not keep long. Use instead a carefully selected blend of flour from Canadian and home-produced wheats milled free from any trace of germ or outer coat of the grain and treated with a chemical "improver" to strengthen the glutin, and the result is a softer, more fine-grained (and uninteresting) texture and a good deal less of the indescribable nutty flavour of fresh bread made without these technical advances. Some people like these soft, tasteless sponges, but the main reason for their commercial success is their long shelf life. Starting from a low level of gustatory virtue, they are not much worse after two or three days of sitting on the shelf wrapped in gaudy waxed paper, especially if the baker has been really modern and added an assortment of "softeners", "extenders", "anti-stalers", and "surfactants" (surface-active agents) in his mixture.

What is the Answer for Bread?

So what is to be done about bread? You can make your own, but when your family tastes how good it is you may be unable to go back to the usual shop bread; you will have to bake bread three times a week. Another solution is to shop tirelessly for bread, arguing with bakers all the while. Or you can simply stop eating bread; this is the course now automatically being taken by an increasing proportion of the population. A pity, because bread is, or can be, a fine food.

Instead of the unexciting, mass-produced, wrapped, sliced article, try breads baked on the premises, preferring the smallest in bulk. Try the "squeeze test"; if the bread squashes easily and bulges back into the original shape, drop it; it is probably not poisonous, merely inedible. Seek out the shops that specialize in non-standard breads, especially those popular with the foreign-born trade. Those brought up to eat a lot of good bread maintain a healthy consumer pressure where they buy.

As to the "health value" of brown versus white and whole grain versus refined flours, note the differences in regard to proteins and vitamins. Usually the darker the loaf, the higher the protein and vitamin content (but sometimes the dark colour comes from black molasses !) Dark rye flour is over 16 per cent protein, whole-wheat flour may be close to 13.5 per cent, the flour from which brown bread is normally made averages 11.6 per cent, and white flour may vary from about 10.8 to 11.2 per cent protein.

The thiamine (vitamin B1) content of flours differs in the same direction as protein. Whole-wheat flour contains about three times 3 as much thiamine as does a white flour and riboflavin, niacin, and iron in about the same proportion.

The percentage of the total calories provided by fats in breakfast foods is low. Corn Flakes and Shredded Wheat indicate the range of fat content of most dry breakfast foods. Shredded Wheat offers about 4 % of its calories in the form of fats; Corn Flakes 1 have not much over 1 per cent fat calories.

All is not quite perfection with the prepared breakfast cereals, however. Most of them contain a great deal of free sugar, and the usual custom is to add still more at the table. Whether this promotes dental decay we do not know, but it is probable that 1 less free sugar would reduce undesirable oscillations in the concentration of sugar in the blood. A big bowl of dry cereal with lots of added sugar can act much like the sugar tolerance test used to detect diabetes. Up goes the blood sugar with a rush, possibly putting an undue strain on the pancreas (which makes insulin, which keeps the sugar within bounds). Then in a couple of hours the blood sugar shoots down again and there may be a "letdown" in vigour. Go easy with the added sugar and take other foods, including plenty of milk (skim or whole, depending on your fat problem), along with the cereal.

Another question mark about the prepared breakfast cereals also has to do with the sugar in them. Some breakfast foods are prepared by mixing the partly cooked cereal with sugar or syrup and then toasting or roasting to dryness at a rather high temperature. This treatment results in a sugar and protein complex that may destroy some of the ordinary biological value of the protein. On the whole, we favour the older porridge types of breakfast cereals such as oatmeal and farina ("Cream of Wheat"), and the like, which, so far as we know, do not suffer from the sugar problems noted above.

The Use of Oils in Breads and Pastries In the chapters on Recipes and Menus in this book we specify oil for many baking purposes. Bread and pastry makers are only beginning to use oils in this way, but such substitution can produce excellent results. This is true in our own experience with piecrust, many kinds of cakes, and all scones and muffins. Moreover, it is easier to mix with a liquid oil than to cream and blend or melt solid fats. Generally, substitution of an oil for a solid fat in baking should not be made one to one; the oils go farther. If a recipe reads, "one teacupful of cooking fat", usually three-fourths of a cup of oil, or a bit less, will be about right. When oil is substituted for butter in a recipe allowance should be made for the salt ordinarily present in the butter.

Different oils are not identical in cooking properties, but cottonseed, corn, and peanut oil are very much alike for baking, though they differ somewhat in frying. Olive oil maintains its flavour in baking but loses most of it in frying. We do not mean that butter or lard should never be used in baking. Some cakes and pastries, for example, need the flavour of butter for their particular character. Often a good solution is to use part butter and part oil; in other recipes only butter will do the proper job.

Are Breads and Cereals Fattening?

The calorie density of foods is important if you are reducing. In this respect, most cereal foods are intermediate between the low calorie vegetables and the high calorie fatty foods such as meats. Such concern as there may be about breads and cereal products being fattening is related to two facts. Firstly, the custom of using butter or margarine on breads and of adding the creamy top of the milk to breakfast foods greatly increases the calorie content of the combination without increasing the bulk appreciably; the calorie density is increased. Secondly, breads and cereal products are relatively bland; they do not quickly cloy the palate, so it is easy to eat them in large quantity. If you are concerned about weight, take small bits of your bread and small spoonfuls of your porridge, eat slowly, and you will have the maximum of food satisfaction with no great load of calories.

Additional topics

Staying well and eating well