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Did You Ever See a Bread Punch?

September 05, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

The first place I ever saw a bread punch in use was Gala Asiya, a quarter of Samarkand famous for sourdough breads. In a little room decorated with postcards of kittens and flowers and an ancient Bruce Lee poster, an Uzbek baker was demonstrating how she made her bread.

When she had rolled out a loaf, which was basically pizza-shaped but much thicker around the rim, she picked up her worn old chekich. The handle was a goblet-shaped piece of wood turned on a lathe and decorated with wood-burned stripes. At the thick end, the chekich maker had hammered in a number of 1 1/2-inch nails halfway and clipped off the heads. There was one nail in the middle with two concentric circles of nails halfway around it.

She made a punch mark in the center of the loaf, then six more in a circle around that, then she reinforced the center hole in each mark using a 3 1/2-inch nail. Finally, she dipped her fingertip in nigella, a charcoal-like spice called siyadana in Uzbekistan, and patted each punch mark with it. This pattern of punches and spice was her family's trademark.

It was also functional. Flat breads, especially leavened ones, tend to develop bubbles or even puff up like balloons as they bake. If it's pita bread you want, no problem, but if you want to keep the bread flat, you have to punch it.

This presses the tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide out of the dough in these spots so the dough doesn't rise there when it's in the oven. The punched spots anchor the top and the bottom of the dough together. This is why saltine crackers have little punch marks in them, and why, when you're baking a pie crust without a filling, you're supposed to prick it with a fork or even with a special spiked roller.

Last December, Peter Brears wrote an article in the British foodie magazine Petits Propos Culinaires about an English bread punch--almost identical in appearance to a Central Asian chekich--called a docker.

At least until the 1970s, dockers were used on the traditional thin, flat oatcakes and tea cakes of the north of England to keep them from puffing. The early history of the docker is vague, but Brears observes that as early as 1400, English bakers were legally required to put their "seals" on their bread.

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