Old-Fashioned Cooking: Leavening

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(OK, so apparently this is not my week for technology – first the power was out, then the internet went down for 10 days and now my camera won’t load pictures. At least I got the post up…)
In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
There’s a reason that bread started out as a thin pancake or tortilla. Once the Ugg family came out of the caves and became real farmers, growing grain was a big deal. It was portable, versatile (think hot cereal, soups, stews and pilafs) and stored well. Eventually, Mrs Ugg figured out that if you ground the stuff between a couple of stones, it made flour, which was even more versatile. The only real problem was that the kinds of bread she could make were flat. Breads like chapatis, tortillas and the original naan bread were the standard. Mrs. Ugg wanted more.
While the history books (which tended to be written by men with time on their hands – the Mrs. Uggs having to give birth, nurse the babies, keep the cave clean, chase the kids, raise and cook the food, etc., etc., etc.) would have you believe that men came up with solutions, I suspect that the mothers were the real inventors here. They had more need and more opportunity to observe what happened when a small child (probably also female) mixed some ashes with flour and water to cook just like Mommy. An alkalinizing agent, wood ash adds lift. Looking at her daughter’s results, odds are Mrs. Ugg immediately recognized the potential of leavening and started tinkering.
As of this writing, we have five kinds of leavening agents: air, steam, yeast, baking soda and baking powder.
Air and Steam
Heated air expands. This is the principle behind beating eggs or batters until light and promptly popping them into a very hot oven. Voila – beaten biscuits, sponge cake and such. Water will also expand and turn to steam – think popovers. In most cases, cooks combined these two principles, using eggs and gluten-containing flour to beat in air and liquid as well as providing structure to the dough.
Yeast
Yeast has been around at least as long as humans. I’m willing to bet that one day Mrs. Ugg was making some good old flatbread and got interrupted by husband, offspring or a wandering sabertooth tiger. The dough sat for a day or two. Imagine the surprise when she came back; she had risen bread dough. Being a thrifty sort, she decided to try cooking it anyway.
Potash (Baking Soda)
While Mrs Ugg and many primitive cultures probably added some wood ash to dishes like piki, or Hopi blue corn pancakes, eventually somebody figured out how to process wood ash into potash. OK, this somebody probably was male. Baking soda was first created in the mid-1800s and was commercially available by the time of the Civil War. Originally known as saleratus, it took a while before it became widely accepted because it didn’t always produce a tasty product.
Baking Powder
Adding cream of tartar to baking soda produced what we know know as baking powder – a much better-balanced chemical that doesn’t require an acid like vinegar or soured milk. In fact, you can make your own (which assures you won’t have any aluminum in it and may help you keep more of your brain cells as you age).
Homemade Baking Powder
This recipe comes from Amy Dacyzyn’s book, “The Tightwad Gazette.” You can make as much as you want, but be warned that this stuff will eventually get stale and not work very well. It also has no anti-caking agents, so be sure it’s stored in a nice tight container well away from moisture. Mix baking soda and cream of tartar in proportions of 2:1. In other words, two teaspoons of baking soda to one teaspoon of cream of tartar. Mix very well. Use the following amounts:
½ tsp – 3/8 tsp mixture
1 tsp – ¾ tsp mixture
2 tsp – 1 ½ tsp mixture
1 tablespoon – 2 ¾ tsp mixture

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