Sunday, February 13, 2011

The staff of life

It's never been suggested that I'm a picky eater, but I am particular about bread --- and nothing (nothing!) on supermarket shelves meets expectations. That includes the designer breads, allegedly "homemade," available here and there (but not in Chariton). The nearest free-standing bakery is an hour's drive away --- a little far to go when you run low.

I've lived with a bread machine, but we quarreled (it was sold during a rummage sale last summer after sitting two years in the garage while I thought about reconciliation).

So I make my own, as a rule (or subsist on cornbread and crackers). It's not hard, but does require commitment. Certain things have to be done at certain times, so the process frames a morning or an afternoon --- although there's plenty of time between steps to do other things.

Although I use a couple of recipes, this is my favorite --- attributed to master cooks and old friends Alyce Underbakke and Jan Block. It makes a good deal of bread --- four loaves at my house where the bread pans don't match --- two big loaves, one smaller loaf (that fits neatly in a gallon-sized plastic bag and is good therefore for giving away) and a fourth that always looks odd so I eat it first.

Here are the steps involved in producing this substantial variety of bread --- good on its own, with a meal or (with salad and fresh fruit) as a meal in itself.

1. Place two cups of old-fashioned oatmeal (not the instant kind) in a big bread bowl and pour four cups of boiling water over it. Allow the mixture to cool for at least half an hour --- it needs to be lukewarm and if it still feels hot after half an hour, stir it until it doesn't.

2. About half way through the cooling process, mix a cup of warm (not hot!) water, a cup of white flour, three tablespoons of white sugar and three packages of yeast in a smallish bowl. Allow to sit about 15 minutes or so --- until it has bubbled and grown and threatens to overflow the small bowl and spill onto the countertop.

3. Add the yeast mixture to the warm oatmeal mixture, then stir in a half cup dark molasses, a half cup brown sugar, two tablespoons of salt, a half cup of oil and three cups of whole wheat flour. Mix/beat this until smooth and set aside uncovered to rise for half an hour.

4. Now add eight cups of bread flour. You'll be able to stir the first couple of cups in (with a wooden spoon), knead the next couple of cups in while the dough is in the bread bowl and then (when the dough becomes manageable), turn it out onto a bread board or other suitable surface and knead in the remaining flour there. This is supposed to take 8-10 minutes, but I think it takes me longer. You'll know when you're done.

5. Shape the dough into a mound and put it back into the (washed) bread bowl and allow it to rise until doubled or more --- cover with saran wrap or something similar.

6. Now, knock the risen dough down, form into loaves, place in greased loaf pans and allow to rise again, covered with plastic wrap, until doubled or more. I usually just dump the dough out of the bowl, flatten it into a big rough square and cut it with a sharp knife into appropriate sizes for my mixed bag of loaf pans. Take some care when shaping your loaves because this dense bread will hold the shape you give it initially no matter how high it rises.

7. After the bread has risen, preheat oven to 375 degrees and pop the loaves in. After 10 minutes, turn heat down to 350 degees and bake for another 35-40 minutes --- until the bread looks the way you think it should look. Remove from oven and turn out of pans immediately onto a clean towel to cool. If it seems too crusty, brush butter lightly over the tops of the loaves while they're hot.

And that's all there is to it.

1 comment:

Ed said...

I think there are few things of life better than a crusty heal of home made bread fresh from the oven and slathered with butter.