This is for Denise who took over as the department chair of an English department I once was a proud part of or do I mean of which I once was a proud part?
I’ve been baking bread off and on for one million years. I got fascinated as a young man living on the Cape. I was learning to cook and making bread was the ultimate. Staff of life. back then I used to buy wheat berries and grind my own flour by hand. You’d ride your bicycle to the health food store in Orleans, or it it were a big trip, buying a lot of supplies, you’d figure out a ride or hitchhike. They had a little white machine that made a racket as it rattled and shook and ground up the rock hard wheat kernel into flour if you wanted, but I was reading Thoreau, and I’d heard of Emerson and Self Reliance, and I was going to grind my own. I had a grain mill I’d bought there, made in Poland, which I still have and use to grind coffee now when our son and Iris visit us. It’s about fifty years old. I now longer grind my own flour with it, but I could.
Then there was a woman whose name I forget, who was married to a man studying homeopathy and had a daughter Maya, who found out I was making bread and volunteered to help. She and Maya came over one day, by bicycle, and she brought her Tassajara Bread book. We made bread together. This is the best of the hippie days, right? A fierce eyed young woman with a child helping a fellow traveler to learn about bread. When she left I had bread rising and her copy of the Tassajara bread book.
What a gift. Here’s a copy you can buy. I no longer have mine.What I write today is heavily influenced by that book.
I am reluctant to order things on line now, because of covid 19 but there are two sides to that. It helps people keep their jobs, but it puts more people at risk. Life. Choices.
Bread. I started again because of Covid 19. You get busy and bread takes a back seat. You can buy it. It becomes a habit. So we start to let others take over part of our life. We let other bake our bread, and we let them grow our milk, and our vegetables, and we let them build our houses and fix things for us. What’s next? Cleaning our houses and doing our laundry and teaching our children- oh wait I was teacher. I got a little carried away, there. It was the spirit of the times. No man is an island. What taught me that was fishing. I thought to make my own fishhooks-independent little cuss that I was. I made my own moccasins, I’d made a shirt, a quilt, an oven to cook in. I wanted to cook fish I’d caught in an oven I’d built and I thought I really ought to make the hook I used to catch the fish. I tried out of wood. I was at Snow’s Hardware in Orleans one afternoon and saw a box of fishhooks for so little money that it was embarrassing to think of the time I’d already spent on making my own exceedingly crude hooks that didn’t work. I bought the hooks. I started to accept that I was a member of a society, that I was not independent in any sense of the word. We help each other. We owe each other, we need each other. No one is exempt from that. We all have mothers, and fathers and are at least indebted for the gift of life to them. Except donald trump. He’s the exception that proves the rule.
We were on bread. There are three stages and each one is not particularly difficult. You learn the process, like the teaching of writing or reading, then you practice the process, and you get better at it. If you want to make bread you just need to do step one, making the sponge- just warm water and yeast and flour and I add a touch of honey for the yeast to enjoy, which takes about five or six minutes and is fun. Then you let it alone to rise, to grow in the warmth of your home, and that is wonderful feeling. You do something else for a half an hour or an hour.
Step two is for me, the most difficult, but it is not bad. You have to take the sponge and turn it into dough by adding the goodies- oats, oil, salt, molasses, corn, nuts- what you want to add, and some more flour to turn that loose sponge into a dough to knead. That’s the hardest part but if you have a nice place to work and a bread board scraper, it’s kind of fun, too. Then let it rise, again, in the warmth of your home. And the fragrant part of bread baking begins with these two stages. You can smell it. The yeast is working, excreting its little bits of alcohol and making the dough get airy. It’s magic.
Step three is easy. You turn that dough out of the bowl on to the board, and knead it down, cut it into loaf sized parts, oil your pans and press it into the pan for its last rising- only about 20 minutes, and then you fire up the oven in earnest to around 350 and bake it for 45 minutes or so.
One thing that used to drive me crazy when I was learning to cook and make bread was that the recipes were so imprecise. I remember in one book, I think it was James Beard he kept being vague. Add two or three cups of flour…. ARRRGGGHH.That’s a big difference. Which is it? I’d want to know. Learning to handle ambiguity is one of life’s skills. Some people just need everything laid out in absolute steps. Well You can try that, but it doesn’t work. I mean it will now and then, but not often. With bread, as soon as you’re told to use precisely 3.2 cups of flour, you’ll get batch of flour that is exceedingly fine and dry and it will suck up more moisture and your dough will be too stiff as you struggle to get each of those 3.2 cups in. It is much better, in bread making and in life, to learn the basic principles and work to them. Over the years, as teacher and as a bread maker, I have learned to live very comfortably with ambiguity.
Basic principles then….
!. The sponge is a very loose batter made of warm water- not hot as that will kill the yeast- some flour, yeast, and touch of honey for you Herb Alpert fans. Stir it with a spoon- and it has to be loose enough that you can stir it, so that’s why it’s easy. Make it go plop plop plop a lot toe aerate it. Think kind thoughts while you are creating a world for this yeast which will be wonderful and it will grow and your bread will eventually make you and others grow. Really? Just kidding? No kidding. It does get pretty cosmic.Set it aside to rest and rise.
Questions. Of course.
How much water do I use. About a cup and a little for each loaf.
How much yeast. A good big spoonful.
What kind of spoon? Come now. We’re learning to handle ambiguity.
How much flour?
I couldn’t tell you. Enough to make a loose batter.
What kind of flour>
I use whole wheat. You use what you have, what you want. Whole wheat makes better more flavorful and nutritious bread- a belief of mine but, but I’m not such a bread nazi that I won’t use white flour because it is poison. I have a neighbor who makes french bread that is to die for and she uses white flour. Every time she gives me a loaf for moving wood or fixing something, I eat the loaf she gives me as payment with utter satisfaction and delight.
What kind of bowl? I use a wooden bowl that Suzy bought at tag sale over 40 years ago for 50 cents. It was painted black and she stripped it of paint and it has been our favorit bowls for a long long time. I oil it regularly with olive oil. You don’t want it too dry, but yes I wash it with soap and water now and then. I also use a wooden spoon that has been with us all our marriage, and a few year before that when I got it somewhere- tag sale no doubt. I have made a few spoons since, but this one continues to be my favorite and it is worn on the bottom so it work great as a bread spoon to scarp dough off the side of the bowl when it is thicker- stage two.
As is explained in the Tassajara Bread book, a little honey gives the yeast a treat. This is their favorite time of life, Fresh warm water, some honey to ingest, some flour to lighten. Plus it gives me a chance to allude to an old album that had a pretty good looking woman on the cover of it dressed in whipped cream. Not many rock and rock trumpeters around these days.
2. adding stuff to the risen sponge.
I put the sponge in our oven which I turn on for few minutes to get it warm. Not hot. If you have a wonderfully sunny spot, or a place by the wood stove, that works too. It takes around half an hour to an hour to rise and it will be twice as big as what you began with. Or twice as big as that with which you began, if you are trying to avoid a preposition at the end of your sentence. My mother got a tremendous jolt out of telling the Winston Churchill anecdote when someone corrected his grammar on this matter- “That, madame, is the sort of errand pedantry up with which I shall not put.” You’re not supposed to use a sentence to end a sentence with? Language changes, doesn’t it. We do, too.
Take the sponge out and mix stuff into it. More honey for a little sweet touch, or molasses. Some oats, perhaps? A little salt. A little oil. Some other kind of flour- corn meal? Walnuts, filberts? Then the rest of the flour. It will get stiffer. If you turn it out of the bowl onto the board to knead too early it is really messy. It gets hard to stir four in after a while, so if you have a kitchen aid mixer you could use that- I never use our for this, though- because I just do it this way.
I put flour down on the board, with my handy handy bread scraper nearby. I bought this one on trip to NYC with Saben and Iris.
Start kneading. Add flour and knead it in. If you put your hands in wet dough it makes a mess. You will live, but it’s easier to keep flour between you and wet dough. Scrape dough off the board, sweep more flour under. Keep adding bits of flour top and bottom and the dough will stiffen. You want to avoid putting too much it, as it seems to make tougher bread and with whole wheat it’s tough enough already. I’m getting better to where I can keep the dough pretty loose and still knead it. Eventually it become bread dough- a little resilience to it, but firm. it’s fun to knead bread. A little messy. Good stuff.
Once kneaded, back into the bowl back into the warm spot to rise. That’s it; you’re really on the way.
How much flour?
Enough. Reread the part above about ambiguity.
What are filberts?
How much oil?
More oil makes a richer, more moist bread, but don’t go crazy and use good oil. !/4 cup of olive oil? I don’t measure.
How much honey?
Right. How sweet do you want it. You want just a touch of sweetening. Not too much. It’s bread, not cake. Go easy. And consider the possibility that you make make bread fairly often and get to be good at it and can dispense with direction altogether. Each time will be different, and good.
How many filberts?
14 of them. Just kidding. Imagine what you want in your bread. Start to get good at using your judgement. If you blow it- remember that and know better the next time. No I don’t measure or count. Wow. Learning judgement and ability to handle ambiguity. Nice.
3. Final step. Turn the dough out- again about twice as large as when you put it in to rise, out onto a floured board. It will be easy to handle now. Cut it into bread sized chunks. I make two loaves at a time. Knead each chunk a bit. A minute or two pr three. Keep the board lightly floured. Use your scraper if you need to but I bet you won’t much. Feel its elasticity. Revel in it. It smells good, feels good. A very sensual experienced. Press the dough into the pan. I use metal pans. Glass works, too, but is heavier, harder to clean and there’s always the thought of breakage handling a hot bread pan full of bread. Our metal ones really release the bread well and are easy to clean. Not true of glass when I use them. Oil the pan- again use good oil- and press the loaf into it with the backs of your fingers. It’s fun. Then I slit the top three times with a knife, and I bush the loaf with eggwhite. I just crack an egg into a little glass container with a plastic lid so I can store what I don’t use for scrambled eggs the next morning, This alleviates the guilt I used to feel over using an egg to decorate a loaf. Once you have the loaf well brushed, sprinkle sesame seed on top. it makes a lovely looking loaf.
Put the pans in the oven- warm only- to rise for another 20 minutes or so.
Then bake it, after the loaves have risen about double. Almost double? Pretty close to almost double. They’ll rise just a bit more once you fire up the oven, but yeast do not live in the extreme heat. If you let them rise too much you’ll get a hollow spot in the loaf.
350 degrees. About 45 minutes. Thump them when you think they’re done. They sound pretty hollow.
They slice better when they’ve cooled a bit but hot bread with butter, while not probably the best thing for you, is SSSOOOOOO good.
It’s also good cold. Or toasted. I don’t have to tell you about eating bread. You know.
Bread and cheese and hummus and broccoli, and some left over pea soup as a dip.