Friday, May 15, 2009

Comfortable Bread.

I came across the lovely concept of “comfortable bread” recently. It seems to have a range of meanings – occasionally soft white bread, occasionally as a metaphor for money, but most usually seems to mean spiced gingerbread. Clearly there is a connection here with comfits, the little sweet spiced sweetmeats or sugared seeds (especially caraway seeds) beloved as digestives by our medieval ancestors and used to nefarious purposes by the infamous Maquis de Sade.

The OED gives numerous meanings for the word “comfortable”. It can mean ‘strengthening or supporting (morally or spiritually)”, “helpful, serviceable, advantageous”, “Strengthening or refreshing to the bodily faculties or organs; sustaining”, “pleasing or grateful to the senses”, “affording mental or spiritual delight or enjoyment”, “affording or conveying consolation”, and “affording or fitted to give tranquil enjoyment and content.” Any or all of these could apply to a nice slice of spiced gingerbread, couldn’t they?

The surprise is that the OED nowhere mentions comfortable bread, in spite of the fact that an early occurrence of the name appears in the work of one of its frequent contributors, Ben Jonson.

From Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1631)

Joan Trash, the gingerbread-woman, keeps her stall near him, and the rival traders have their differences. "Do you hear, Sister Trash, lady of the basket! sit farther with your gingerbread progeny, there, and hinder not the prospect of my shop, or I'll have it proclaimed in the fair what stuff they are made on." "Why, what stuff are they made on, Brother Leatherhead? Nothing but what's wholesome, I assure you." "Yes, stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger, and dead honey, you know." "I defy thee, and thy stable of hobby-horses. I pay for my ground, as well as thou dost. Buy any gingerbread, gilt gingerbread! Will your worship buy any gingerbread? Very good bread, comfortable bread!"

There is no shortage of gingerbread recipes in this blog. If you are not familiar with it, may I refer you to the Through the Ages with Gingerbread archive? I must still offer you a recipe for the day however, so here it is, a simple version from that just happens to also be gluten-free:

Belgian Gingerbread.
½ pound cornflour
¼ pound butter
¼ pound white sugar
1 or 2 eggs
½ ounce ginger.
Work all ingredients together on a marble slab, to get the paste all of the same consistency. Make it into balls as big as walnuts, flattening them slightly before putting them into the oven. This sort of gingerbread keeps very well.
The Belgian cook-book, by Brian Luck. 1915

Quotation for the Day.

Our boyish days look very merry to us now, all nutting, hoop, and gingerbread.
Idle Thoughts, J.K. Jerome.


Anonymous said...

Your link to the Marquis de Sade is broken (damn! I really want to know what the old devil got up to with caraway seeds...).

The Old Foodie said...

sorry - link now fixed!

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srhcb said...

My idea of "comfortable bread" would be bread from a recipe which is reliable and easily accomodates minor adjustments and modifications. Mine would be (Bert Porter's) "Naturally Great Loaf of Bread" from The King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cook Book.

The Old Foodie said...

my idea of comfortable bread is similar to yours, Steve. It must be comfortable to eat too - that is, fairly consistently delicious - perfect texture, crisp crust but no sharp shards.