In July this year, the charred remains of more-than-14,000-year-old bread were found at an archaeological dig site in the Black Desert in north-east Jordan.
The bread was shown to have been made from wild cereals, such as barley, einkorn or oats, as well as tubers from an aquatic relative of papyrus, which had been ground into flour. The amazing part of this story is that the hunter-gathering people who were living here were making bread some 4000 years before the cultivation of plants as crops.
The question now being asked is whether bread, an intregral part of our diet, which provides an important source of carbohydrates and nutrients, may in fact have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming.
Yeast, or rather the knowledge that yeast could be used to leaven bread and ferment beer and wine, was mastered by the early Egyptians. Hieroglyphics suggest that ancient Egyptians were using yeast and the process of fermentation to produce alcoholic beverages and to leaven bread before the development of a written language more than 5000 years ago.
In those times, the biochemical process of fermentation was not understood and undoubtedly looked upon as some kind of voodoo magic.
There really is a sense of magic when you add yeast to flour and water and watch it start to bubble and rise. Yeast is an extraordinary thing. In her beautiful book, Ferment, author Holly Davis relates that, "When an archaeological dig in Egypt unearthed a bakery, the walls were scraped and those scrapings added to fresh flour and water, and wooshka! The mixture expressed life, 3000 years or more after the last baking. Immortality is the domain of bacteria and yeasts."
In early times, the wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that are found associated with cultivated grains and fruits were the start point for leaven, a soft dough-like mixture that was (and still is in many places) the beginning point for bread. A small portion of this dough was used to start or leaven each new bread dough. Natural selection of high-performing yeasts was achieved by saving a "good"batch of dough for inoculating the next batch. Through these selections, we now have the commercial yeasts available today.
This week I share my favourite bread dough, which uses cooked potato and olive oil, to produce a wonderful flatbread that's puffy, chewy and crusty and can be cooked in so many ways.
PARMESAN AND BASIL DIMPLES
Ready in 45 mins Makes 24-30 ½ recipe crusty flatbread dough (see right) Neutral cooking oil, such as rice bran, to fry To serve 1 cup tomato passata or tomato pasta sauce ⅓ cup grated mozzarella or grated parmesan 24-30 small basil leaves
Prepare the dough by following the instructions for crusty flatbread up to the point where the dough has risen and doubled in bulk. Sprinkle a little flour on a board or bench, roll the dough into a long sausage, then cut into 24-30 evenly sized pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball then flatten with the floured palm of your hand. Allow to rest for a few minutes then roll each piece out so it is about 1cm thick. Press your thumb into the centre of each rolled round to create a light dimple.
Pour the cooking oil into a medium pot to a depth of about 2cm and heat over a medium heat until it is hot enough that a small piece of dough starts to sizzle vigorously as soon as it is added. Fry the dough rounds 3 or 4 at a time until they are golden on the bottom, then flip to cook the other side.
Lift out of the oil and drain on paper towels. Serve topped with tomato passata or pasta sauce, mozzarella or parmesan and basil leaves.
Annabel says: You can make these pillow-like breads ahead of time and reheat in a hot oven for a few minutes before topping with tomato passata or pasta sauce, parmesan and basil and serving.
Ready in 45 mins + rising. Makes 2 large loaves Crusty flatbread dough 1½ cups warm (not hot) water 1½ tsp dry yeast granules or instant yeast 1 packed cup cooked mashed potato ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil About 4½ cups high-grade or baker's flour, plus a little extra for kneading 2 tsp salt To garnish 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil 2 tsp fresh rosemary leaves ½ tsp sea salt
Place warm water in a large mixing bowl (a breadmaker or electric mixer with a dough blade is ideal if you have one). Sprinkle yeast over the water and allow to stand for 2 minutes (if using instant yeast you can leave this step out and just add the yeast into the flour and mix everything together). Mix in the mashed potato and the ¼ cup olive oil.
Stir in the flour and salt and mix until the dough just starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. Don't add too much flour — it should be soft and sticky.
Turn the dough on to a lightly floured board and, using lightly oiled hands, (the dough should be very sticky) knead about 30 times (or for 3-4 minutes on the dough cycle of a breadmaker). Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with muslin or a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk (3-4 hours).
You can also leave it in the fridge, covered, to rise slowly overnight. When you're ready to cook your bread, turn the risen dough on to a lightly floured board, divide in half and shape each half into a ball.
Roughly flatten one ball on to a tray lined with baking paper, pressing the dough out to an oval shape about 25 x 20cm. Use your fingertips to press dimples into the top of the loaf, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary and sea salt.
Allow to stand for another 10-15 minutes in a warm place while you place a baking stone or steel baking tray on the centre shelf of the oven and preheat oven to 220C fanbake. Slide the baking paper with the loaf on it off the tray and on to the preheated baking stone or tray. Bake for about 25 minutes until golden.
When cooked, the bread will sound hollow when you tap it. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the baking stone or tray for a few minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool. Repeat with the other ball of dough, or use it to make cheese and ham twists or parmesan and basil dimples.
If you want to save the second ball of dough to use later, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean cloth and place in the fridge for up to 48 hours. It also freezes well. Thaw before pressing out and baking.
Annabel says: This is a wonderfully supple focaccia dough that makes enough for two large loaves. You can freeze half the dough to cook later. The potato keeps the dough tender and stops it from drying out. I use leftover mashed potato but if you don't have any in the fridge, boil potatoes until tender, mash them and allow them to cool before adding them to the recipe. The wetter the dough is, the lighter the finished result will be, so don't be tempted to keep adding flour.