Last week was kind of a crazy week. I had two convocations to attend: my own on Thursday and M’s on Saturday. Because it was so busy, the cupboards were looking a little bare, especially of bread product. A perfect chance to pull out my bread recipe and get my hands dirty.
This recipe is one of those things that ties me back to home pretty strongly. There was a period of time that my mom baked all our bread. It was the only time I saw her hands without rings: she would take them off and put them someplace safe, on the windowsill or the lazy susan.* I asked her to teach me how to make bread when I was in my second or third year of university. I don’t think I’ve ever ruined a loaf: making bread is so simple, probably easier than most realize.
My recipe, while originally taught to me by my mom, came from Food That Really Shmecks by Edna Staebler. And because she’s awesome, I have to share what she says about this bread and baking bread in general:
Bread-making is a grand thing to do. Kneading is a kind of revelling: it makes one feel like a primitive, pioneer woman–unstarvable, self-sustaining and joyful. …
Do I seem to be trying to talk you into making your own bread? I hope you don’t mind. I simply enjoy making and eating it so much myself that I’d like everyone else to have the same pleasure. If, then, you can hardly wait to get started, I assure you again: you are ready for one of the great satisfactions of a lifetime. Good luck.
Food That Really Shmecks, 153-154
Edna Staebler is one of my food idols, not because of her cooking (it’s all Mennonite cooking, so nothing terribly exciting or out of the ordinary in my opinion) but because of the delightful rambling she throws into her cook books. Now, on to the recipe and my own rambling attempt to explain how to bake bread.
Neil’s Harbour Bread (Basic)
The first step involves creating an environment for your yeast to grow. Yeast likes warm, wet places. So, use the largest bowl you have. Make sure it’s not cold. At Staebler’s suggestion, I actually popped mine in the microwave for 30 seconds. Make sure it’s not too hot either, because that will kill your yeast just as fast as cold will.
Into the bowl, dump:
1 cup lukewarm water
1tsp white sugar
Allow the sugar to dissolve in the water. Then add:
2 tablespoons yeast granules, the equivalent to two packets
Let it sit for approximately 10 minutes. The yeast will grow and spread out and double or triple in size. This can be kind of cool to watch.
Once the yeast has grown to fill the bottom of your bowl, add:
2 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup white sugar
1 heaping tablespoon salt
1/2 cup margarine or butter or shortening, melted
About 9 cups all-purpose flour
Add the flour last. Add about half of it to get the dough into something that almost resembles dough, then slow down and add it one or two cups at a time. By the end, it should be near impossible to mix with a spoon. Ditch your spoon, take off your rings (trust me on this one) and get your fingers in there. Mmm… squishy.
A little bit more about the flour. Staebler’s recipe calls for white flour. Some white flour is absolutely necessary. One of the things I remember my mom telling me was that at least 50% of the flour should be white so there’s no issues with rising. Staebler says you can use all whole wheat flour if you’d like, but I suspect you might have to let it rise a little longer if you did that. My suggestion: use your 50% white flour, and then mix as you wish! Try any kinds of flour and grains you can get your hands on. Red River Cereal works, oatmeal works, rice flour would probably work, etc. etc. The combination for this particular mix is 50% white, 25% whole wheat, 25% oatmeal.
When everything is mixed in, it may be a little sticky. That’s ok. Sprinkle flour liberally on a clean counter top and dump your dough on top. Now comes the kneading! To knead, push the dough away from you with the heel of your hand. Turn it 90 degrees. Fold the dough towards you. Depending on how far away you pushed it, it may be useful to slide it back toward you at this step as well. Push the dough away from you with the heal of your hand, turn it 90 degrees. Fold, etc. etc. As you run out of flour on your counter top, sprinkle more down. The dough will get less sticky quickly and more easy to handle. Keep at it as long as you can before getting bored.
Now, this is a step that isn’t in the book, so maybe I made it up and it doesn’t actually exist. Grease your bowl. Drop the dough into the bowl, wiggle it around a little, then flip the bowl upside down to remove the big ball of dough again. Drop it back into the bowl with the top all nice and smooth and shiny. Cover with a tea towel and find a nice warm place to let it rise. On top of the fridge is best. In my old house, my dad made a decorative bread-rising shelf right above the stove.
Allow to rise for about 2 hours. It should at least double in size and look perfectly puffy. Punch it down in the bowl, then return it to your floured counter top. Knead the whole thing a couple times, then pull out a large, sharp knife and separate the dough into three equal parts: your three loaves. Knead each separately and shape into a smooth loaf. Grease three loaf pans and place your kneaded, shaped loaves into the pans. Return them to the top of the fridge, again covered with a tea towel.
This time, they only need about an hour to get nice and puffy. Once they have risen, pop them directly into a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. When they are done and tops are beautifully golden, slide a knife all the way around the edge of the loaf pan to separate the bread from the pan and pop them out onto a cooling rack. Let them cool a little before cutting into them for the first hot slice.
Remember: this bread has no preservatives. That means it will go bad a lot faster than store-bought bread. Keep it in the fridge or freezer if you don’t eat all of it within the first few days. It won’t taste as fresh, but at least your hard work won’t go completely to waste.
* It’s when I think about this kind of stuff, the small details, when I realize how hazy my memories of the old farmhouse — the home in which I spent the first 18 years of my life — are. I couldn’t even guarantee I could get the layout of the kitchen right anymore.