Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Recipes for a Simple Feast

"If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” --Robert Browning
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” --James Beard
It seems to me that Browning and Beard are right: there simply is no food as deeply satisfying as bread. For countless generations and across innumerable cultures, humans have savored this staple of all staples. No matter what particular form it takes or what it is called—injera, boule, bagel, tortilla, nan, baguette, chapatti, biscuit, lavash—bread has done much more than satisfy our hunger. It has also served as a powerful symbol of social communion and spiritual sustenance.
"I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never grow hungry." (John 6:35).
“Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” --Nikoli Berdyaev
"Let us break bread together on our knees." --African-American spiritual 
“With bread all sorrows are less” --Sancho Panza, in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
We are fortunate in our society today to have the opportunity to taste many different breads made from a wide variety of grains. You can now select from an assortment of “artisan loaves” right alongside the hotdog buns at your corner grocery store, or swing by your local bakery to grab a rosemary and olive ciabatta on the way home from work. Even individuals who cannot consume gluten can readily find good-quality sandwich loaves, rolls, and bagels.

In my opinion, though, the most satisfying breads are those we pull out of our own ovens. Fancy-schmancy $7 loaves just cannot compare to bread your own hands have made (generally for just a few cents per loaf). And the simpler the recipe you use, the better it is likely to be.  After all, bread is, in its essence, a strikingly simple food: flour, water, and perhaps a bit of salt and some leavening. (I wonder if the widespread use of bread as a spiritual symbol is not partially rooted in the mystery of how such basic ingredients can combine to provide sublime satisfaction.)

When I first started making yeast breads in the late 1990s, it seemed an intimidating task. Like any self-respecting Southern gal, I had long ago learned how to toss together a batch of biscuits or a pan of cornbread and could whip up an array of quick breads and muffins. But yeast bread was another story. Our family had gotten all our sandwich bread and most of our rolls at the supermarket, I had rarely seen yeast bread being made, much less tried it on my own. I was terrified of killing the yeast with water that was too hot; worried that I wouldn’t knead the dough long enough; and fretful about whether I wouldn't be able to judge how much “5½-6 cups of water” actually meant. Unwisely, I combined my inexperience with complicated recipes containing what sounded to me like an enticing array of ingredients (rye, buckwheat, and amaranth flours; Scottish oats; flaxseed; wheat berries). Not surprisingly, I baked quite a few rock-hard, hole-riddled, and fallen (though exquisitely healthy!) loaves in those first couple of years.

Fortunately, all those trials and tribulations were not in vain. Over time, I eventually got a “feel” for the dough and could tell when its moisture content was right, and when it had been kneaded just enough. I also learned to simplify both the ingredients and the process. This has made regular bread baking a much more feasible and pleasant experience for me. In fact, my girls and I now make almost all the bread our family eats—from rolls and sandwich loaves to breakfast breads and pizza crusts.
"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight." --M.F.K. Fisher
In this post, I share the recipes for a couple of the simplest, easiest, whole wheat breads I make. I do so especially for those of you who have dreamed of baking your own bread but, like me, find getting started intimidating--to encourage you to give it a try. I think you'll find it to be well worth the effort!

Jennie’s No-Knead Whole Wheat Breads
 I have been making no-kneed whole wheat bread for a couple of years now, following the guidance that Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François provide in their best-selling books Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The results have been wonderful: hearty loaves with a crackling crust and a lusciously rich crumb.  (You can learn more about these books and where to purchase them at their website:

I’ve played around with their recipes in various ways—dropping the vital wheat gluten (I don’t like the taste), adjusting the amount of water and salt they call for, and shifting the whole wheat : white flour ratios. These days, I generally make my dough with a 2 : 1 ratio. Despite being surprisingly simple (the only ingredients are flour, yeast, salt and water) and ridiculously easy, this dough makes beautiful peasant boules (ball-shape bread) and sturdy, sliceable loaves. It also makes wonderful pita bread. Because you begin by making one large batch of dough and then baking from it several times (the dough can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week) it is wonderfully convenient. It is not surprising, then, that this bread has become a staple for our family. We eat some form of it almost every day.

Version #1: Hearty Farmstead Bread
 5 cups whole wheat flour*
2½ cups unbleached bread flour
1½ tablespoons yeast
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or more or less, depending on your taste)
3½ - 4 cups warm (100-110°F) water

*You may use up to 100% whole wheat flour. The more you use, the denser and heavier (but healthier!) the bread will be.

Mix together in a very large bowl the first four ingredients. Pour the warm water over the top and stir it in with a large wooden spoon. (No need to knead!) The dough should be somewhat wetter than typical bread dough and should conform to the shape of the bowl when left to sit.

Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and place it in a warm spot in your house. Leave it for at least 2 hours, or until the dough has completely risen and then collapsed in the center. You may now either form your first loaf/boule or you may put the bowl in the refrigerator and return to it tomorrow or anytime you like during the next few days (the dough will rise a bit less and taste a bit more sourdough-ish with each additional day, so follow your own taste buds in determining how long you wait to bake it).

When you are ready to bake, sprinkle flour over the top of the dough and pull out enough to make the size loaf or boule you want. (I often bake 2 or 3 loaves/boules at once and then slice them and put them in the freezer. If you decide to bake more than one loaf at a time, simply pull out several handfuls of dough and repeat the shaping process described below.)

Quickly shape the dough into a ball and place it on a flat pan (or into a loaf, placing it upside down into a lightly oiled loaf pan, and then flipping it so the top of the loaf is oiled). If the dough was refrigerated, let it rest for 1½ hours. If it wasn’t refrigerated, let it rest for 45 minutes. (This dough will generally not “double in size” by that time. Don’t worry; it doesn’t need to.) About 30 minutes before the dough is finished resting, preheat your oven to 450°. If you are using a baking stone, put it in the oven at this time. When the dough is ready, slash the top of each loaf/boule. If you like, you may also brush it lightly with water and sprinkle on some coarse kosher salt or sea salt. Either place the pan(s) in the oven or slide the dough onto the baking stone. Then place a roasting pan on a lower rack and fill it with at least 1 cup of hot water. (This will steam the bread as it cooks, making the crumb more moist.) Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until it is firm and sounds hollow when you gently tap it with your knuckles. (The bottom will crisp and brown better if you remove the boule from the pan 10 minutes before it is done and place it directly on the oven rack.)

If you let the dough sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days or more, it will be perfect for making pita bread. To do this, simply preheat your oven to 500°. Wait until it’s preheated before you take the dough out of the fridge (this will make it easier to work with). Then simply divide the dough into rounds (each about the size of a golf ball). Flour a large surface, and roll out each round into thin circles or ovals. Place on a baking stone or an oiled cookie sheet and bake on an upper rack for 5-7 minutes. They should puff up nicely. But even if they don’t, they’ll be delicious! (And lots of fun, too—this is a great thing to do with kids!)

One of our favorite things to do with the boule form of this bread is to break it open while it’s still warm and dip hunks of it in garlic and herb olive oil dip. To make it, simply pour around ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil into a shallow bowl and add 1-2 cloves of finely chopped garlic, some freshly ground black pepper, a sprinkling of red pepper flakes (optional) and a bit of each of the following (either fresh or dried):
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Parsley.

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
--Omar Khayyám

Despite how much we all love our Hearty Farmstead Bread, sometimes my girls have a hankering for something a little lighter, sweeter, and less crusty to serve as the base for their turkey sandwiches and egg-and-toast breakfasts. After some recalculating and experimenting, I came up with the recipe below.

Version #2: Kid-Friendly Farmstead Bread
4 cups unbleached bread flour
4 cups whole wheat flour
  tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or more or less, depending on your taste)
1 cup dry powdered milk
3 - 3½ cups warm (100-110°F) water
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup honey

Mix all the dry ingredients together, add the liquids, and follow directions for Version #1, but bake at 400° instead of 450° for 30-40 minutes, depending o the size of the loaves.

This version tastes great with honey butter. To make, whip together 1 stick (½ cup) softened butter and ¼ cup honey. Add a few drop of vanilla and a few shakes of cinnamon if you like.

This version also makes wonderful cinnamon-raisin bread. To prepare, refrigerate a grapefruit-size portion of the dough for at least 12 hours (and up to 3 days). Remove from the refrigerator and immediately roll the dough into a rectangle shape, the width of which should correspond to the length your baking pan. Brush a few tablespoon of melted butter over the dough and then sprinkle it generously with raisons, cinnamon and brown sugar. Starting at one of the short sides of the rectangle, roll it up to form your loaf. Press the dough together at the end of the roll to seal, and then drop it, seam side up, into your greased baking pan. Flip the dough so that the seam side is now down. Let it rest of 1½ hours and bake at 400° for 35-40 minutes or until done.

"Avoid those who don’t like bread and children." - Swiss Proverb

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chilly Reverie

It was 23 degrees when we went out to the barn to do the chores this morning. Brrrrrr! The girls and I try not to rush through our tasks on days like today. But although we still take the time to chat with the chickens as we scatter their scratch, and we make sure to rub the goats' backs while we muck their stall, we often end up scampering through most of the less pleasurable jobs and high-tailing it back to the warmth of our house as quickly as possible. Some days I find myself thinking as I briskly cart the poop bucket to the compost heap, fingers numb and eyes watering, "I can't wait until summer."

But, of course, I can. And will. And truly, I wouldn't choose to rush summer even if I could. For if I did, I might miss that cozy feeling of coming inside from the cold and smelling the coffee brewing. I might miss seeing the pasture glisten sleepily under the delicate crystals of a hard frost. I might miss the rough, crunchy sensation of my boots colliding with frozen ground. I might miss the smoky smell that lingers on my husband's jacket after he's been sitting around the fire pit on a weekend afternoon. I might miss my girls' excited exclamations over the few-and-far-between snowflakes that fall from these Piedmont skies. I might miss the feeling of hope and optimism brought by the gradual lengthening of the days and the slow and sporadic warming of the earth as spring approaches. I might miss those first forsythia buds, those first daffodil blooms, those first asparagus spears peeping out to brave the still-frigid air of early spring. And I might just find myself unable to appreciate quite so thoroughly that summer heat I've been craving.

G-P and I have been talking a lot lately about trying to learn to live more fully in the present moment, to be engaged in and appreciative of what is right here, right now, rather than being caught up so constantly in ruminating over the past; anticipating and planning out the future; and attending to the endless streams of information, materials and activities that clutter modern life. 

As Thoreau tells us in Walden, this is precisely why he "went into the woods."

I wished to live deliberately . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. 
I do not wish to make it to summer and realize that I never truly lived the winter. So tomorrow morning, I will cajole my shivery body into moving a bit more slowly through the chores. I will take time to treasure the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that come with them. And I will remember to give thanks for both the beauties and the discomforts of winter.