Is there anything better than the smell of freshly baked bread? Ok, maybe freshly baked cinnamon rolls. But, even in your nearest shopping mall there’s the intoxicating smell of freshly baked dough, made into pretzel shapes. No matter how gluten-free some want to be, the fragrance of yeast-raised dough will make your mouth water, your tummy growl, and your memory recall Grandma’s baking. Well, maybe not the last – depends on your grandmother!

I grew up in an era when convenience foods were just popping up in the stores, and in an area where fast food was just a rumor. Even so, my mom did not bake bread. For sandwiches we had the white fluffy stuff hardly anyone wants to eat anymore, or at least won’t admit to eating. Mom even got to the point where biscuits were those pop out of the tube things. We loved ‘em! So novel, so easy, so cheap! Not that we didn’t have made-from-scratch desserts and meals, just that a few packaged items made their way into our kitchen, and bread and rolls were two of them.

So I surprised myself, and my mom, when I started to bake breads. I was married and had small children and was a stay-at-home mom, or homemaker as we were called. (Never ‘housewife’!) I had time and wanted to save money so I made a lot of our food from scratch; plus I started to look at the nutrition of our foods and wanted to avoid some of the additives. Not only were the homemade bread and rolls tastier, they were fresher and I knew what was in them. I made dinner rolls, breakfast rolls, bagels, doughnuts, French bread – all from yeast dough. And then there were the pies, the cakes, the cookies – I could go on. I was a happy baker!

For a long time after that baking did not fit into my life. Oh, an occasional foray into the baking pans, and certainly cookies at Christmas time. But not many breads or rolls. In the past few years I have rediscovered my baking passion. Mostly I bake our sandwich bread and buns, not very many sweet items. I am a simple baker, just want a quality loaf of bread for toast or a sandwich. It was challenging to find a simple, ‘clean’ loaf of bread in the stores, and the prices seemed outrageous for what was offered. There are bakers at the farmers market I go to but sandwich bread was too ordinary for these specialty bakers, who have some wonderful products but not what I sought.

I mentioned being a simple baker. For me, that means using store bought dry yeast to raise the dough. I know how to work with this type of dough, and at risk of jinxing myself, have always had success with it. What I am working on now is learning how to make bread from just flour, water, salt, and natural yeast. Natural yeast? Yes, the yeast that is in the air. I made a starter using just flour, water, and time – time to let it capture the yeast and develop. The starter is then combined with more flour and water and worked to develop the gluten (which gives it structure) and allowed to rise. This produces a much wetter dough than the more familiar method I have used for years. And that is where my problems start! I just haven’t figured out how to work with it, to get it from proved (fully risen) to baking pan without collapse. Hence, the loaves come out of the oven much flatter than they ought to be and very dense in texture, although the flavor is grand. Well, I do like a challenge and while it is frustrating to have such disappointing results, I will keep at it and find success!

In the meantime, if you are a bread baker and want a solid recipe for a good loaf of bread, here you are. (If you haven’t baked bread before, give it a try. Very rewarding. I recommend looking for a copy of The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown for detailed directions that are easy to follow.)

Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

Makes 2 loaves

Combine 2 cups (c.) whole wheat flour and 2 c. unbleached white flour (You can use all whole wheat flour but I like the texture when I use some white fl_our.)

Dissolve 1 package or 1 Tablespoon (T.) active dry yeast in 3 cups warm (~90°) water. Stir in 3 T. honey (or agave syrup or sugar). Stir in the flour, mix well, then beat about 100 strokes to develop gluten. Scrape down sides of bowl, cover with a clean towel, and set in warm place to rise for about an hour. This is the sponge and is quite wet.

After the sponge is risen, sprinkle 1 T. sea salt over the top, and drizzle 3 T. oil (organic canola, avocado, olive oil, or melted butter) over it. Gently fold these into the sponge. When incorporated, fold in 3-4 c. whole wheat flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls together and comes away from sides of the bowl. (Optional: I also add 5-6 T. vital wheat gluten as I add the flour; this helps the rise as whole wheat flour has less gluten by volume than white flour. The ratio I use is 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup whole wheat flour.)

Now knead the dough on a floured board, using more whole wheat flour but only enough to prevent it sticking. Knead about 10-15 minutes – I always do 15. Place in lightly oiled bowl, cover with towel, rise 50 minutes. Punch down, let rise 40 minutes. Cut dough in half; on floured surface roll each half to a rectangle, then tightly roll the rectangle like a jelly roll and pinch seal edges. Place in oiled bread pan and cover. Let rise about 30 minutes. Preheat oven during this final rise to 350°. Place pans in center of oven and bake 50-60 minutes. I always check at 50 minutes and find the loaves are done. If your oven has hot spots, you may need to turn the pans halfway through, etc. Let the bread cool in the pans only 5 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

I slice the bread when it is all the way cooled, pack loosely in a long, heavy plastic bag, and put in freezer. Once frozen, I can compact it a bit more but not squish it. This way I can take out just the number of slices I need and don’t have to thaw the whole loaf. There are only two of us and we don’t eat it fast enough to not store it in the freezer. It keeps a long time when frozen.

Recipe adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown

Image courtesy of phasinphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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