Why Bread is No Longer Rising

With time on my hands this week, worrying and wondering about loved ones in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I was struck by a fascinating web post: That, as a country, we’re consuming sharply declining amounts of wheat products -- less bread and rolls, less wheat-based breakfast cereals, fewer English muffins and even fewer wheat tortillas.  Sales of bread loaves are down 11.3% over a recent five-year period -- and falling, even as our population grows. Given the vast numbers of Big Macs, Subway sandwiches and Domino's pizzas we buy every day, these data, from Food Navigator USA, seemed counterintuitive to me. Since our national waistlines aren't shrinking, we must be eating more of something else, so I began to wonder where the replacement calories are coming from. Three large trends reveal the answers: A change in how we shop for food; big ethnic shifts in eating habits away from meat-and-potato diets and an explosion of endless snacking.

Start with snacking: Granola bar sales were up 16 percent in the same period (and still rising), so that's one place where oats clearly is replacing wheat -- a packaged snack trumps a sandwich.

In addition, a recently released 2013 food and beverage forecast by international restaurant consultants Baum+Whiteman talks about the "snackification of America" -- noting that snacks now account for about one-in-five eating occasions, and that we've become a nation of serial munchers seeking foods that are portable. "If it fits in your car's cup holder, if you can eat it with one hand, or better yet, two fingers ... then it's being tested in (restaurant) chains' R&D kitchens," they say.

Another study, by Rabobank, noted that all packaged snack bar sales -- consisting mostly of energy, nutrition, granola/muesli, and fruit bars -- have almost doubled in the last ten years. These may sound "healthy" but by and large they're laden with sugar -- which tells me a bit more about where those extra calories are coming from.

Equally important, we've gradually been abandoning the archipelago of shelving in the center of our supermarkets, steering our shopping carts around the edges, where we find vivid fresh products as opposed to cardboard packages -- and this trend is accelerating among younger people (who've gotten the eat-better message) and among single people across the board. So it's down with Cheerios and Fruit Loops and up with carrots and broccoli, chicken and salmon.

The folks at ConAgra, where they sell grains by the carload, told the newsletter Food Navigator that supermarkets are "suffering from 50 shades of beige as ... we shift from a meat-and-potatoes European diet to a more modern, colorful, multi-textured, multi-flavored diet influenced by Asian and Latino food."

Aha! In addition to oats, we're buying more rice and more corn-based products because that's what Asians and Latinos like to eat -- and, nationally, we're increasingly thrilled with their flavors, aromas and spices. Less gravy, more salsa. More corn chips. Brilliant idea by Taco Bell to add Doritos flavorings to their taco shells. Will Burger King someday stuff crunchy corn nachos into their Whoppers in America -- just as they're doing right now in Taiwan?

Four other factors are at play. There's the artisan bread movement with bakers kneading not just wheat but all manner of grains to produce a denser product that's eaten more slowly (I think of my husband's weekly two-day ritual to bake one large sour and aromatic whole-grain rye bread studded with barley; it lasts a week). There's the growing anti-gluten brigade of people who, with celiac disease or not, believe they should avoid wheat for health reasons.

There's also been a swing among fast-casual chains (like Chipotle) toward serving food in bowls instead of wraps, and a rise in salad sales at fast food chains, all taking a dent out of bread consumption.

And finally there's the residual from last decade's anti-carbohydrate movement when white foods and sweet stuff were forsaken by carnivores hoping to trim their midsections.

As for me, I'll still slather my homemade jam on a slice of my husband's warm homemade bread. It's a far better snack than a granola bar any time of the day.

Healthy Bread & Honey-Walnut Cream Cheese

It's cold outside.  And even if it's not, bread is totally awesome to make, and a lovely stay-in-the-house weekend activity.   For more than two decades, I have left the bread baking skills to my husband who created his own sour-starter and kept it going for more than 15 years.  "Longer than most marriages," my friend Arthur would say of a box of pasta.  After those 15 years, my husband started winging his formula with a different, but no-less-delicious, result every time. With the skill of a surgeon, he cuts into the first crusty piece; with the consideration of a wine maven, he deems it "good."   But today, my daughter and I will make a much simpler bread that takes much less time to prepare and is pretty much fool-proof.  It can't compare to my husband's artisanal weekly triumphs or the professional holiness of Jim Lahey's now-famous technique, but to a 14-year old, it is guaranteed pleasure.  It is also rather healthy.  Put aside approximately three and a half hours:  This includes the time for two risings, baking, and cooling.  Granulated yeast can be found in any supermarket, right next to the flour.  "Kneading" the dough means that you press it down hard, fold it over itself, then press again.  You do it at least twenty-five times per rising.  Lightly flour your hands, not the counter, as you go along.  In this recipe, the surprise addition of cocoa powder adds a hint of flavor and turns the bread a lovely color.  When it's all done, Shayna and I play a game.  What are we going to spread on it today? Honey-walnut cream cheese?  Homemade carrot marmalade (as in the photo) or... is it time to make butter, again!?  After all, said M.F.K. Fisher -- the high priestess of food writers, "The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight."  Exactly. A Loaf of Whole-Wheat Bread Makes 1 loaf (about 14 slices)

1 package granulated yeast 1 tablespoon sugar 1-1/2 cups whole-wheat flour 1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached white flour, plus more for your hands 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder 1/2 cup milk, at room temperature 2 teaspoons olive oil, for greasing the pan

Put 1/2 cup warm tap water in a small bowl.  Stir in the yeast and sugar until dissolved.  Let sit 10 minutes until it bubbles and doubles its volume.  Put both flours, cocoa, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl that can be used with electric beaters.  Mix briefly.  Add the dissolved yeast and mix until crumbly.  Add the milk and beat until the dough forms a ball that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  The dough will be a bit sticky.  Roll onto a clean counter and knead 25 times (flouring your hands as needed.)  Roll into a smooth ball and put into a large clean bowl.  Pull plastic wrap tightly over the top.  You can do your homework or watch it rise!  Let rise 1-1/2 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume and is a little spongy.  Punch the dough down again and knead on the counter 24 times.  Lightly oil a 8-1/2-x-4-1/2 inch loaf pan (or any 6-cup pan) and put the dough into the pan, making sure to press it down into the corners.  Cover with a kitchen towel and let it rise 1 hour, until the dough has risen by half.   During the second rising, heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Bake for 35 minutes until firm to the touch.  Let cool 10 minutes, then turn it out of the pan. Cool before slicing. Honey-Walnut Cream Cheese 1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts 8 ounces cream cheese 3 tablespoons wildflower honey

Place cream cheese and honey in bowl of electric mixer.  Using the paddle, beat just until smooth.  Add nuts and mix.  Cover and chill.  Makes 1-1/4 cups