Bread-making is a fun way to teach children about baking powder's chemical properties and how bread rises. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Teaching kids chemistry through bread-baking


I have been thinking about all the parents who are providing some kind of home schooling for their children.

Making oatmeal breadsticks is a project that young children can do and a change of pace for breakfast or lunch. It also can be a lesson in chemistry and physics.

The baking powder in this recipe is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate, which is a base, and one or more acid salts. When baking powder gets wet, the two chemicals dissolve and start to react with each other, releasing minute bubbles of carbon dioxide in the dough. The oven heat makes these bubbles expand until the wet dough dries and firms enough to trap them. The bubbles are what leavens or lightens the dough so it is not a dense, flat bread.

This recipe comes from a 1908 cookbook put out by the Rumford Chemical Works in East Providence, R.I. The company name came from one of the most colorful characters in American history, Benjamin Thompson, aka Count Rumford. Thompson (1753-1814), was born into a poor, farming family in Woburn, Mass. He attracted the notice of educated men for his talent in mathematics and science. He received some tutoring, borrowed books from private libraries, and started making experiments in physics. He was hired as a schoolmaster in Concord, N.H.

At the age of 19, Thompson demonstrated his predilection for society women and his talent for marrying wealthy widows. His first wife was 14 years older and she introduced her husband to John Wentworth, the royal governor.

Governor Wentworth enlisted Thompson in helping the British cause at the onset of the American Revolution. Thompson fled to Boston to avoid being tarred and feathered as a traitor, abandoning his wife and infant daughter. He started spying for Gen. Gage then got himself appointed a lieutenant colonel of the King’s Dragoons, a Tory regiment. He did not have much time for his lab experiments then, but he did invent a cork vest for horses that would allow them to ford rivers while carrying a cannon. Lord George Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, hired him for his knowledge of the colonies.

In Britain at the close of the war, Thompson conducted experiments on the physics of heat and light and invented practical applications for his knowledge. He was the first to describe convection currents. In his most popular invention, the Rumford fireplace, he applied what he had learned.

Thompson reasoned correctly that a tall, shallow, angled firebox would better reflect heat into a room and that a narrower flue with a curved face on the room side would eliminate convection currents to better draw smoke up the chimney.

Observing that small fires were much more fuel-efficient for cooking than large fires, he invented a well-insulated cookstove that accommodated several small fires. His chief innovation was to include an oven as well as a flat cooking surface.

The Duke of Bavaria hired Thompson to reform his army and improve morale. The inventor recommended that the state raise the pay for privates and give them their uniforms instead of requiring them to purchase them as well as equipment from their officers. He experimented with fibers to identify the best fabrics for winter and summer uniforms. Thompson had all the indigent poor housed in modern workhouses and employed them in making uniforms and equipment for the army. Then he set up courses teaching marketable skills to soldiers and their families, including gardening. He experimented with various grains and vegetables to create a more nutritious diet for soldiers and the poor and persuaded the Duke to create a large public garden for the enjoyment of the common people.

For his contributions, the Duke made Thompson a Count of the Holy Roman Empire with his title and pension to be inherited by his daughter Sarah. Rumford was the old name for Concord, N.H. That is how Concord gained its own resident countess.

After his first wife died, Count Rumford married the wealthy widow of the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who had been guillotined in the Reign of Terror.

In his will, Thompson, remembered by Americans as a traitor, left money to Harvard University for an endowed professorship. Eben Horsford, co-founder of the Rumford Chemical Works, was a chemist who had been granted the Rumford Chair at Harvard.

I think Count Rumford would have approved the following recipe for oatmeal breadsticks because he praised oatmeal as a nutritious food. These are shaped like breadsticks, but they are essentially biscuits.

Oatmeal Breadsticks

Yield at least 10 breadsticks

1½ cups scalded milk

½ cup oatmeal or rolled oats

¼ cup butter

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. sugar

3 tsps. baking powder

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Heat the milk and turn off the heat before it boils. Stir in the oatmeal and butter and set aside until it is cool enough to handle.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir in the milk mixture just until incorporated. Knead the dough a few times on a floured board. Pat the dough out to rectangle measuring about 10-by-6 inches. Slice the dough vertically into ½-inch-wide breadsticks. Use a spatula to place on parchment-covered or oiled baking sheets. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes until the breadsticks are golden brown. Serve immediately.




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