Seasonal Flavors: Homemade Bread

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I always aspired to bake bread. I had no role models for this; my mother didn’t bake, nor did my maternal grandmother. My paternal grandmother purportedly baked bread regularly, but she died when I was five. Family lore says that when she finished kneading the dough, and just before she set it to rise, she would imprint the sign of the cross on the dough with the edge of her hand. The romanticism of this gesture still haunts me and I never fail to emulate it.

As a young mother I had no choice then but to teach myself. I got a book and set to it. The recipe I used had explicit instructions, which I most certainly needed. The yield from said recipe would produce four loaves of bread. Let me tell you, that’s a lot of ingredients, a lot of kneading, and a lot of bread to eat. I was adamant that mine would be only 100 percent whole wheat, and consequently my first batches came out like lead bricks. My children would eat it right out of the oven if it was slathered with lots of butter, but once that bread cooled, no one would touch it. Our chickens ate a lot of whole wheat bread (bricks) till I perfected my recipe and technique. I baked bread Saturday after Saturday and, just as in the laboratory where I worked during the week, even though it seemed that you did the same thing each time (following the recipe in the kitchen, or the procedure in the lab), gradually the product/experiment became more successful.

My big breakthrough came when I decided “if they are only going to eat it when it’s hot—then I’m only going to make one loaf!” Everything is easier with one loaf of bread and eventually I learned what the book never told me, the little tricks that will make even 100 percent whole wheat bread light and airy. I’ll save you the trouble of all that trial and error. You must be home for five hours to make this bread, but the hands-on time is only fifteen minutes. Bonus: your house will smell great.

One Perfect Loaf of Whole Wheat Bread

  • 1 ½ cup warm tap water
  • 1 ½ tsp yeast (buy a jar rather than yeast packets)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup dry milk (optional, but helps to lighten this bread)
  • 4 cups whole wheat flour (separated)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil

Put the water in a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast, mix in the honey and wait five minutes for the yeast to start to grow and bubble.  Beat in the eggs and milk, stir in the flour and beat vigorously with a whisk or wooden spoon for 100 strokes. Mixture will be soupy.  Experts call this ‘the sponge’.

Cover with a tea towel and allow to rise in a warm place for one hour.

Sprinkle the salt and pour the oil over the sponge and stir with a wooden spoon. Add 2  more cups of whole wheat flour till a stiff dough forms. Dump the dough on a floured board or counter or marble slab. Fill the bowl with warm water and soap to soak the dough remnants off the bowl—you’ll need the clean bowl for the next rising.

Knead the dough by pulling the top half of the dough over the bottom half (if you imagine the ball of dough as a clock face, fold 12 o’clock down to 6 o’clock). Push the dough forward with the heels of both hands. Turn the dough a quarter turn (so that the 3 o’clock position is now at the 12 o’clock position). Repeat for ten minutes: Fold/Push/Turn. While you are kneading, think about your life, mull over a problem, or pray, if this is something you’re inclined to do. Kneading bread is a contemplative and soothing activity; everyone should experience this joy at least once.

After ten minutes your dough should be springy and beautiful. Pull it together into a ball.

Now wash the soaking bowl and pour in a little vegetable oil.  Put the dough, smooth side down into the warm bowl, then turn it over so that the seam side is down. Cover the bowl again and set in a warm place to rise for an hour.

When the hour is complete, gently punch the dough down, six or seven times, all over, to remove the gas. (The yeast is growing—microbiology at home!) Cover and let it rise again for another hour.  These repeated risings also contribute to a lighter loaf.

Remove the risen dough and knead again, ten times. (Not ten minutes, just ten repetitions of fold/push/turn)

Form the dough into a loaf shape by rolling it with your hands into a wide log-shape to fit the pan and placing it seam side down into a greased loaf pan. Preheat the oven to 3500F.  Allow the dough to rise about 20 minutes, while the oven is preheating.

Cut 2 slashes into the dough with a sharp knife. Brush with beaten egg and, if you like, sprinkle with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or oats. Bake for 40-45 minutes. The bread should be dark brown and shiny. Your house will smell divine. Be sure to have lots of butter. This bread is even good after it cools.

Note: if you’re not a purist, this recipe works perfectly well with white flour, but is not nearly as nutritious. Or you can make the great compromise and use half white, half whole wheat.  I often make partial substitution with other flours such as cornmeal, flax meal, buckwheat, rye, or raw oats.

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