Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Simple Joys

I have been intending for about two years to resume baking bread, something I did often in my junior year of college. (Don't go counting on me, it was long ago in a galaxy far away.)

This spring and summer I have actually done it, using all those wonderful flours I have collected with this very thing in mind. It has been great fun and deeply satisfying.

I use no recipe and to call my loaves "multi-grain" may be an understatement. I just start grabbing tossing into the mix.

Well, it's not quite that haphazard. I start with a sponge that invariably involves a cup of whole wheat flour and two packages of rapid rise yeast. The sponge usually has a bunch of extra gluten and a good cup of oat bran, maybe a little this or that. Water at around 115 degrees Fahrenheit (aren't those instant-read thermometers lovely?). I leave it alone for 20-35 minutes and it doesn't take long before I can smell yeast in the kitchen.

In another bowl I toss all the "exotics" that are going into any given batch: buckwheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, oatmeal, cracked wheat, sunflower seeds, chopped walnuts, soaked and softened wheat berries, etc. This includes a scant tablespoon of kosher salt. You don't want the salt in the sponge lest it interfere with the yeast early on.

In the mixing bowl goes a bunch of canola oil, 3-4 eggs, one melted stick of butter (I like it rich, thanks, and moist), either honey or cane syrup or both (honey acts as a great preservative).

The sponge and the dry ingredients are added to the wet and I let my trusty Kitchen Aid mixer do the hard work, at least ten minutes of working that dough. I used to use the dough hook but am working on moister mixes and just use the regular beater. I add unbleached white wheat flour until it is fairly thick but not forming a ball.

Then I take it out and put it on the floured counter and knead by hand, adding as much flour as necessary but no more, using my dough scraper. Then I put it in a large bowl with a bit of oil in the bottom, swirl the dough about to coat with oil, turn it over, punch four holes in it to form a cross, invoking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as I do so. (I acquired this habit from my Armenian friends and would never make bread without doing this; it is, after all, a sacred act.) Finally, I cover it with plastic wrap so the top doesn't dry out.

I recall reading, zillions of years ago, that 85 degrees is good for bread rising. That is usually in the neighborhood of the ambient temperature in much of my house this summer, so all I have to do is leave it alone for an hour. Bulks up beautifully.

Punch that sucker down, shape some loaves, brush them with beaten egg, slash the tops, turn on the oven to preheat (425º), let loaves rise for maybe half an hour, pop in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 375º. (Opening the oven drops the temp about 50º so the higher preheat was to keep it at 375 the whole time.) I check in on them around 35 minutes when they are usually done. Cool on racks, though the first slice comes off almost immediately, is slathered with butter, and consumed with ecstasy.

That is hardly a poetic hymn to bread or the baking thereof; more a free-wheeling recipe. There are days I am more prosaic and this is one of them.

With all the oil and honey in the bread, I don't have to refrigerate or freeze it. I usually make three loaves and give one away. The loaves keep perfectly in 1-gallon freezer bags. Of course, they don't have to hang around all that long--who is going to walk past without cutting a slice?

One of the treats I have enjoyed is putting some cream cheese on a small plate and putting it in the microwave for ten seconds. Yes, the usual commercial stuff. After nuking it, the stuff spreads easily. Of course, if you have access to fresh schmear, by all means enjoy! I have to drive across town for that, so usually take this shortcut. Then I slice tomatoes from my yard and put them on the bread and cream cheese. That's it. No salt, nothing added. Just the wonderful nutritious bread, the creaminess, and the sweet tartness and essence of tomato on top. Heaven!

Simple joys.

--the BB


Jane R said...

Paul, it's 80-something here too, but humid (sigh). If I try this, will it change the rising time?

I guess I'll have to experiment. I'm not usually a bread-maker, but it's tempting. My father got into bread-making in his sixties, mostly in the summers when he had a little more time, and he made (still makes, though very rarely now that he's in his late eighties) wonderful whole grain concoctions.

One of my local friends makes excellent bread -- must ask him for his recipe; it's fairly simple and I've had the bread a few times. He and his husband (the Episcopal Church in this diocese said yes to gay-lesbian weddings, though it does go congregation by congregation -- I gather one local church recently balked, or rather the wardens did) are great cooks. (I know, stereotype, but in this case it's true!)

P.S. My foodie family and I went to see "Ratatouille" when I was up in Boston last weekend. We loved it. One of my young (high school) cousins is seriously into cooking and the next day at the big family reunion I was asking him about this and he started talking about flavors exactly the way Remi the Rat does in the movie! (which he hasn't seen yet) (It was just five of us who went to see the movie, the day before the hordes descended.)

Paul said...

Jane, I'm glad you and some family members got to see the film. A tour de force of animation and foodism.

I think two things have helped me get back into bread. Letting the mixer do so much of the hard work (kneading is satisfying but I like leaving the first ten minutes to the machine) and being patient about rising. If I am home for horus at a time, there is no rush and I can do other things while bread rises.

Ed said...

The cream cheese/tomato treat sounds yummy! Since I'm not a bread maker, I'll have to try it with something from my nice local Korean patisserie. :-)