The BBC Food Programme finished 2013 with a revisionist attempt to dethrone Elizabeth David. I don’t think it was wholly successful, but then, being one of her aspirant middle-class acolytes, I would say that, wouldn’t I. English Bread and Yeast Cookery is one of her best books, in my biassed opinion, so it was a great treat to hear David’s cut-glass tones telling the equally wonderful Derek Cooper how she makes bread. I’ve sliced it out for you:

I agree that longer fermentation definitely improves the taste, and possibly also the digestibility, of bread. That’s the approach I generally use, in contrast to Suzanne Dunaway, my guest on Eat This Podcast a couple of weeks ago. It’s also true, as Terence Conran told The Food Programme, that Elizabeth David’s books are possibly even better to read than to cook from, something I did a while ago for a bread baked under a cloche starting in a cold oven.

Re-reading that makes me want to try it again.

Alfie Venner spent the days before Christmas helping his parents with their wood-fired, sourdough-leavened bakery in Somerset. Part of his recollections :

On my breaks from mixing, stretching and shaping dough with the head baker, I helped mum weighing out the dried fruit for German Stollen bread and rolling out the 100g pieces of marzipan that get carefully rolled into the centre of each loaf. The rich dough that mum makes bears little resemblance to the first Stollen made in 13th Century Saxony from oil, flour, yeast and water. We have Pope Innocent VIII to thank for that; in 1490 he sent what has become known as the ‘butter letter’ to the Saxon Prince allowing the Saxons to use butter during Lent.

That seemed odd. Stollen is (and always has been?) a Christmas bread, so what’s Lent got to do with it? A little sleuthing turned up an article on Wikipedia that had some details. Advent was a fast period, just like Lent, and after a couple of rebuffs and five papal successions Pope Innocent VIII finally permitted the Prince-Elector of Saxony and his household to use butter, and the stollen we know and love was born.

Wikipedia says that the oil that went into stollen before the butter-letter was “expensive, hard to come by, and had to be made from turnips”. I suppose that it was an oil pressed from turnip seeds, or some other Brassica, but as Wikipedians are so fond of saying, “citation needed”. The online history of stollen leaves a lot to be desired. Are there any better sources?

Recent newspaper reports suggest that people walking past “pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries)” are more likely to point out that someone (an experimental stooge) has dropped a glove than people walking past “places with no odor”. One report summed this up as:

The smell of freshly baked bread doesn’t just make you hungry. It makes you kinder.

I’m not sure that the science merits that conclusion. I tracked the research down to a paper in The Journal of Social Psychology, The Sweet Smell of … Implicit Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Spontaneous Help in Shopping Malls but as it is behind a paywall, I’m not going to investigate further. Except to note that the author, Nicolas Guéguen, seems to have happened on a rich seam of experimental approaches. The sweet smell of… courtship: Effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on women’s receptivity to a man’s courtship request investigated another aspect of social behaviour.

18–25 year old women walking alone in a shopping mall were approached by an attractive 20 year old male-confederate who solicited them for their phone number. The women were solicited as they were walking in areas with pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries) or with no odor. It was found that women agreed more often to the confederate’s courtship solicitation in the pleasant smelling areas.

I’m amazed the newspapers didn’t latch onto that one.

NPR last week had a report on the extra-special bread people bake to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I didn’t know that there are special shapes reserved for the New Year challah — round, for the cycle of the year — and that the bread is even sweeter. More to the point, I didn’t know that challah originally referred not to the whole loaf, but to a small portion that the baker removed and gave to the priests as an offering. These days, few bakers do that. But they do take a moment to reflect while holding the small piece of dough.
That’s a nice idea.