Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Staff of Life

Although it was always my intention to make food an important part of this blog because it's an important part of my life, I quite ironically felt the launching call just as we were moving in with my parents-in-law, which meant that I would be cooking and baking less than ever for a while. We were busily between houses, and cooperative arrangements needed to be evolved. Now that we are settling in, I am happily getting back into some of my food routines. How better to begin than with the basics. For us that means a whole grain whole wheat bread that has truly become our staff of life.

Now, I've heard bread called the staff of life many times, but I don't think I really understood that statement until I discovered good bread--that is, hearty, handmade, short-ingredient-list bread, so different from the fluffy white stuff that I grew up on, which wasn't substantial enough to sustain a gnat and deserved no particular attention on its own merits. It didn't stand alone as a food, but merely served as a vehicle for whatever of substance one put between its slices. A loaf of that pseudo bread with "a jug of wine, and thou" would leave the average person in a low-blood-sugar coma or at least a state of ravenously renewed hunger in less than two hours. Even as a youngster, I really hated the way it suctioned to the roof of my mouth when I ate sandwiches. That lack of gumption didn't seem right to me even then. I may have been ignorant of quality or nutrition, but I knew annoying when I encountered it. It seemed to me that good food shouldn't be annoying. In fact, my granny used to insist on toasting her white bread because she believed that it became a wet lump in her stomach otherwise. Now that I think about it, maybe she was right. But enough of ranting about industrial bread, which has been banished from my life anyway (except for Chris's Grocery sandwiches, but that's another story).

The beginning of understanding what the staff of life meant was my college trip to France. Good bread is everywhere there. Even street baguette sandwiches have substance and flavor. In fact, I one day made a full lunch of only good cheese and good bread while visiting Baden Baden on a no-lunch-provided bus tour. There I was, perfectly sated after a few pieces of basic food stuffs. That just couldn't have happened after a meal of American pasteurized process cheese food (that's it's unappetizing technical name) and American white bread. My eyes were now opened to what bread could be.

Then I graduated and moved to the mountains of Oregon. Our nearest shopping town didn't have fine bakeries, but I did seek out the best quality factory bread I could find. Still pretty oblivious to ingredient lists, I nonetheless remembered that good bread has body to it. At least, I couldn't roll this bread easily back into a wet, white dough, as I did to my childhood bread. I even experimented with baking bread at home. The first time I did so, I was quite struck by how yeasty it tasted, like an exponent of all the bread I had previously known.

Suddenly, as I recount my own historical relationship with bread, I'm amazed at how long knowledge can take to germinate. I see now that I continued for years--well over a decade--buying grocery store bread, even when I was making from scratch my own pizza and baby food and every sweet thing we ate. The only explanation that I can now find is that bread was so basic to life that I never imagined I would be able to keep us supplied with it myself. I had bought into the industrial food product myth, which says that food is too hard and we should just let them make it easy for us. Oh, the painful hind sight.

It wasn't until I started culinary school in the city, where I discovered Great Harvest, that I was able to buy the kind of bread I wished for, simple bread with just a few easily recognized ingredients and without anything else (no dough conditioners, preservatives, corn syrup, emulsifiers, etc.). Yet another layer of scales dropped from my eyes. I was absolutely in love with their bread for over a year , buying it at least weekly. Then, several months ago, I decided that surely I could figure out how to make my own perfect bread. After all, I was allegedly a professional baker (however untrained) and a culinary student. It was high time to master this basic food.

I did a little online research for recipes to compare, so that I could get an idea of the basic formula that would result in good whole grain whole wheat bread. (I'm borderline hypoglycemic, so white bread is a treat unless carefully combined with protein, and so comes later). I ruled out all recipes that contained anything but pantry staples. I didn't want to have to buy some fancy ingredient that I did not currently stock or that was a convenience product in itself, like powdered milk. With my pool narrowed down to three, I started baking. Pretty quickly, I settled on a basic recipe whose origins I don't even remember now. I've made changes of course, so it's mine now. I may tinker with it still. Good food evolves, and good cooks play.

I missed my bread so when I was unable to bake during the oven outage and moving. Although I bought the best bread I could find at our local grocery store, it was a disappointment, tasting the way I imagine an inflated and toasted cereal box would. So it was with much joy that I returned to baking it here at the Flora farm. My latest loaf is the one in the picture at the beginning of this post. It's my best yet because I kneaded it longer, giving it better gluten development for prettier shape retention. I'm still getting to know the bread and what it needs. And that's OK. It will only get better.

Before I get to the recipe, I need to say that whole grain whole wheat bread gets an undeservedly bad rap in my opinion. It is substantial, yes, but not heavy or dry or bitter or any of the criticisms I've heard about it. This bread turns out hearty, very wheaty (am I the only person who loves the taste of wheat as is?), moist, lightly sweet, and very nourishing--a good staff of life indeed--with only basic ingredients and techniques. While there is an entire world of bread to explore (and I intend to), this bread is a good place to start. I think of it as the workin' blue jeans of bread. It's stout and easy, an everyday workhorse of sustenance. A toasted and jellied slice of this bread with a glass of milk will get you a ways down the road or off to bed with a satisfied tummy.

There are also so many notes to make about this recipe. First, despite there being some truth to the old rule of being absolutely precise when baking (as opposed to cooking), there is some room for adjustment here. The type of oil is flexible; melted butter might even work, although I haven't tried that yet. Use whatever sweetener you want, even increasing or reducing it to suit your tastes (I did). If the water isn't the specified temperature, you'll still get bread, just a little more slowly. Speaking of slowly, you could even use less yeast and allow more rising time for better flavor development, if you're really in the know. If you'd rather bake two loaves at a time, just double everything. If you aren't familiar with bread baking at all, find instructions for kneading and loaf shaping online, which are the only steps requiring any specialized instruction. There are really so many ways to change any recipe. The point is to start somewhere simple, providing your own basic nourishment, and expand from that humble beginning. That's my plan.

I also must provide the caveat that I'm a novice recipe writer. I learned at culinary school that producing a good standardized recipe is part art, so I apologize if my learning curve shows badly.

Well, not that you've been duly warmed up and warned, I depart to check on my bread. I don't know what the future holds (including anyone actually trying any recipe of mine), but today there's homemade whole wheat on my counter. That's good enough for now.

Basic Whole Grain Whole Wheat Loaf Bread

1 1/3 cup very warm water (110 degrees or so)
2 tablespoons sugar, brown sugar, honey, or molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons oil
3-3 1/2 cups or so whole wheat flour, plus more for kneading
1 tablespoon active dry yeast

  1. In a medium bowl, combine the first four ingredients.
  2. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix well.
  3. Add the yeast and stir in.
  4. Add two cups of flour and stir in. If the dough cleans the side of the bowl at this point, you are ready to begin kneading. If it doesn't, add more flour 1/4 cup at a time until it does.
  5. Knead until smooth and elastic, 7-10 minutes or so by hand, using just enough additional flour to keep from sticking. I have also let my Kitchenaid mixer knead it for me, which only takes a couple of minutes, although I think it benefits from a little hand finishing even then.
  6. Let rise in a greased bowl until it has doubled in size. This will take 30 minutes to an hour.
  7. Shape the raised dough into a loaf and let rise in an 8" X 4 1/2" loaf pan until it's above the sides by about an inch. Again, this will take 30 minutes to an hour.
  8. Bake the risen loaf in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes.
  9. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Then turn out onto a cooling rack and allow to cool thoroughly before storing.

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