Sunday, January 15, 2023

Holy Breads

Bread is a key element in the art of cooking. What makes bread so important to so many? We think about it as a staple that has always been, and we take it for granted. We all know that most of the packaged commercial loaves that you buy in a U.S. grocery store are dry and tasteless, and basically just an excuse for butter and jam.

At holiday time particularly during religious holidays such as Kwanzaa, Channukah and Christmas special breads come out. We have all laughed about the fruit cake that is passed along from party to party until someone who likes it keeps it.

My mother loved the German version, Stollen. When I was young, she ordered from a private baker who delivered the Stollen to our apartment and others around New York City. This was my mother’s breakfast for the holiday season she never understood why I did not like this dry cake with fruit in it.

My wife, on the other hand, prefers Panettone, a wetter sweeter bread also with fruit in it and she snatches up boxes wherever she can find them, so it lasts a while past Christmas. I found the story of the origin of Panettone. It goes back to 1495. During the luxurious Christmas banquet given by the Duke of Milan, the desert got burnt. A young cook, called Toni, came up with a rich brioche bread, filled with raisins and candied fruit. The Duke loved it, and so the tradition of 'Pane di Toni' was born.

This started me thinking of the significance of bread in history and religious observance. Though I had never thought about this before, maybe because I am Jewish :), I like Challah best and have it daily when I can get it. (The egg shortage lately has made this difficult.) In biblical times the Jews made do with unleavened bread, i.e. matzoh, and this is commemorated at Passover. In the Jewish religion, however, Challah is served Friday evenings at the beginning of the Sabbath (Jewish Holidays start the evening before) as well as holidays. It is not particularly sweet but rather rich and moist.

In the Islamic, Jewish and Christian religions bread is thought of as a gift from God. When Moses fed his people in the desert with food which fell from heaven. Bread wafers are central to Catholic mass. With the parable of Jesus multiplying loaves as well as fish to feed a crowd, bread became a sign of sharing as well.

According to the web, in Islam bread may not carry the same spiritual weight as it does for Christians and Jews, but still it is regarded as a blessing from Allah, and an important symbol of almsgiving, and hospitality. Special breads are a part for Id al-Fitr, the feast that follows Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Is that very far from religious significance? I would think not.

Anyone who has travelled abroad or to different regions of this country knows that people of all faiths, nationalities and localities have breads that are special to their community. Having worked in France I am very familiar with Croissants and Brioche. Here are two French staples that have been interpreted and copied in many countries and they are different in each if not in every bakery. And don’t forget Southern hushpuppies!

From what I have learned bread is a universally thought of as a gift from heaven … that is everybody’s heaven.

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