“Leaven, which some deem the soul of bread… this seed I regularly and faithfully procured from the village, till at length one morning I forgot the rules, and scalded my yeast; by which accident I discovered that even this was not indispensable- for my discoveries were not by the synthetic but analytic process- and I have gladly omitted it since, though most housewives earnestly assured me that safe and wholesome bread without yeast might not be, and elderly people prophesied a speedy decay of the vital forces.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Massachusetts-born author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his book Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854. A decade earlier, Thoreau spent two years living in a cabin he’d built in Walden Pond, a wooded area owned by fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: his aim, he writes, was “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Across the book’s eighteen chapters, Thoreau discusses nature, humanity, and divinity, advocating for a life of solitude and simplicity. The title of “Economy,” the chapter from which the above passage is taken, is not meant to invoke the sense of the word that many of us, especially in the past three years, are familiar with. Instead, as Thoreau tells us, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.” Seeking and embracing spiritual and intellectual growth, he argues, leaves us far richer than any monetary gains.
As shown in the passage, leaven (and all of its religious and historical symbolism) is taken to task in “Economy.” The term “leaven” refers to any one of a number of substances (e.g. yeast or baking powder) that create gas bubbles in a dough or batter, causing the final product to rise and soften. The process is based on fermentation, which biologically changes the chemistry of the dough as the yeast works to reproduce and consume carbohydrates in the flour. Unleavened bread – the kind Thoreau advises we eat – generally consist mainly of flour, water, and salt (although Thoreau also argues that salt is not essential for man to thrive). Unleavened flatbread holds special religious significance in Judaism and Christianity; Jewish people consume unleavened breads such as matzoh during Passover, and unleavened bread is usually used in the Western Christian rite of celebrating the Eucharist.
The truth: pita bread is not unleavened bread, because a small amount of yeast is required to create the pocket in the pita (a process aided by steam, which puffs up the dough until it cools and then flattens, leaving a pocket in the middle). Pita are remarkably easy and incredibly rewarding to make: essentially, you dump the ingredients in a bowl, knead, let rise, break into 8 balls and roll out, let rise again, and then toss the disks into an incredibly hot oven and watch as they “puff” into little orbs of bread. The second truth to reveal here is that while the process is amazingly easy it took me a few tries to get it right. After waiting two hours for the dough to ready, I threw my first batch in the oven and watched them become nothing more than dense, burnt-yet-doughy little flatbreads, a failure that I matter-of-factly blamed on the large crack that recently appeared in my old wooden rolling-pin (really, the dough was just too wet).
Four hours later, brand new pin at hand, eight little pita came out of the oven, puffed and prepared to slowly deflate. The recipe I used can be found here.
You must make pita! They are wonderful! We snacked on them straight out of the oven with a fragrant homemade garlic rosemary hummus, filled them sandwich-style at dinner, and then salted, baked and ate them as chips after a late night round of Scrabble and wine. I offer my apologies to Mr. Thoreau for choosing to include a bit of yeast in my flatbread. His sentiments are by no means lost on me, but today it was a worthy indulgence.
More on leaven from Walden: “Yet I find it not to be an essential ingredient, and after going without it for a year am still in the land of the living; and I am glad to escape the trivialness of carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more respectable to omit it.”