In the Grain: A baker’s answer to the coronavirus

What I do know is, while we are living through an apocalyptic reality, there is an upside to it all: We have our families together, bored out of their minds and furiously looking for things to do.

FLAVORED HOMEMADE BREAD (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
FLAVORED HOMEMADE BREAD
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
In a world gone mad, it helps to have certain constants that help us retain our sanity. One of these constants is that we still have to eat, right? I am not sure what is more dangerous, the coronavirus, or the distinct possibility that being cooped up at home with nothing to do, we will binge.
What I do know is, while we are living through an apocalyptic reality, there is an upside to it all: We have our families together, bored out of their minds and furiously looking for things to do. For decades I have been preaching the merits of baking as a bonding tool, and this seems like a good opportunity to reiterate it.
What other activity combines food, art, chemistry, physics and hands-on better than baking? In five minutes or less, you can whip up (excuse the pun) a great, low-cost activity for kids and adults alike. For example, take a simple packet of petit beurres (shortbread), melt some cooking chocolate (cimcao) in the microwave and dunk the cookies in chocolate. It is a fantastic 30-minute fun activity that culminates with an error-proof, high-quality end product.
For the more adventurous, you can actually bake the cookies yourselves and then dunk them. Or you can delve into bread baking with yeast, which is another world altogether that is not only fun, but also educational. Get some good exercise and burn a few calories kneading the dough. Did you know that the ancient Romans used to knead the dough with their feet? Ick! Talk about microorganisms (like the coronavirus) and yeast which, unlike corona, is beneficial to mankind. Remember Louis Pasteur and how he discovered a world of little critters under the microscope? Watch the dough rise like magic and discuss how gluten is like an elastic band that stretches as the dough rises. You get the idea.
The key is to get back into the kitchen and make your own food, and most importantly, involve the family in it. If you are a seasoned baker, you will already have your own favorite recipes. If not, search the Internet. It only takes seconds to find millions of recipies, most of which will probably work.

HERE ARE some additional quick, creative, (exotic), low-cost ideas:
• Make your own bread sculpture dough. In a pan, mix ½ cup water and ½ cup sugar. Bring to a boil while stirring and then cool. Mix cooled sugar syrup with 4 cups of flour (preferably white rye flour). This makes stiff dough, the consistency of Play-Doh, which you may use to sculpt into different shapes. You can color the dough with food coloring, cocoa, etc. Bake at 180ºC for approximately 1 hour (depending on the thickness of the sculpture). To get a shiny finish, baste with egg before baking. The best thing is that these sculptures are edible!
• Bake some Hungarian Langos (fried) bread. Soften 1 large, peeled potato in the microwave. Mash and cool. Mix and knead with 2 cups flour, 1 Tbsp. water, ½ cup milk (soy milk for pareve), 2 tsp. yeast, 1 tsp. salt, ½ tsp. sugar and 1 Tbsp. oil. Leave to rise 45 minutes. Shape into pita shapes. Leave to rise another 15 minutes. Make a central slit (about 4 finger-widths long) on the surface of the pita, all the way through, with a sharp knife. Fry in hot oil and flip until golden brown on both sides. Sprinkle with garlic and salt. Serve warm. Delicious.
• Sample the charms of the Orient by baking Indian chapatis. This flatbread has no yeast. It is quick to make and visually rewarding. Mix and knead 3¼ cups flour, 1½ cups water, 1 tsp. salt and 1 Tbsp. oil. Heat a pan on low heat. Shape dough into 10 pita shapes. Bake chapatis on both sides in a pan for approximately 55 seconds each side. Remove pan from flame. Using tongs, bake chapati directly over the low flame. Singe on one side for about 15 seconds, then flip and singe on the other side for a further 15 seconds. The chapati will balloon up. Cool and eat like a pita.
• Whip up chocolate lollipops. Melt some cooking chocolate (cimcao) in the microwave. Pour into small (tot size), disposable plastic cups. Cut a drinking straw in half and insert in the center of the chocolate in the cup. You may need to fiddle around for the straw to balance it and stand it upright. Place in the freezer to set for about 15 minutes. Cut and remove the plastic cup, which should easily peel off the chocolate. Enjoy. If you have any leftover chocolate, you can dunk banana, apple or pear slices in it and refrigerate to harden.
• Make your own energy bars. Mix 14 cups of rolled oats, 2 cups cranberries, 2 cups sesame seeds, 3 cups sunflower seeds, 1 cup flax seeds, and 1 kg. honey in a bowl. Pour out into a deep, flat, rectangular baking pan and flatten evenly. Bake for 1 hour at 200ºC. With a sharp knife, cut into bars and leave to cool. Optionally, you may dunk bars in melted chocolate.
This is just the short list of a multitude of creative ideas to keep the campers occupied, happy and on a sugar rush (no; scratch that last one). Consider it a gateway to explore other, similar ideas (easily found on the Internet) to get through these troubled times.
In my next article I will describe how to turn your kitchen into a chemistry lab and conduct visually stunning and practical science experiments using common baking ingredients. Stay tuned and maintain a positive outlook.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (saidels.com), which specializes in baking and teaching how to bake healthy, traditional Jewish bread. He also manages the Showbread Institute (showbreadinstitute.org), which researches the biblical showbread.