Tuesday, January 19, 2016

manna


Making bread can be hard work. First you have to measure all this flour and decide to salt or not to salt at this stage of the game, or when, and how much sourdough (first making the sourdough, which takes lifetimes) or yeast – and if yeast what kind of yeast, the little blocks of it you get at the grocery store or the granules you get at the Co-op; then water – how much, you don’t want dough soup – and then there’s the mixing. A backbreaking undertaking. Kneading, too – you need strong hands for that, fighter’s hands. Also time, oodles of time, to let it rise and punch it back down and let it rise again. Sounds like a war, doesn’t it. And then, do you cover it or not, put it in a warm place or cool, for how long.
And then the question arises, Is it good for you? So many people seem to have some ‘gluten sensitivity to all those white carbohydrates. Even brown ones, or rye ones, or seedy. Doesn’t it all turn to sugar in the intestines? And how do they grow wheat these days, and what have they done to it before they plant it. Maybe better just to grab a loaf at the grocery store and pretend you didn’t –“Let’s don’t and say we do”, as my weary grandmother used to say. And we’re not talking Wonder bread here, we’re talking artisan-of-some-sort bread, at anywhere from $5 to $10 a pop! It’s expensive, man, and you don’t want to see it turn blue so you eat it up without further ado.
But I dunno, there’s just something about bread...  I can’t let it go, and neither can you. I know you! And that’s why I keep mentioning it, writing about it. Good bread, I say. The best bread is, I say. And that’s why I keep trying to find MY method of making it.
I make a decent pizza dough with a lot of yeast and a lot of warmth in a very short time. It can also be formed into a loaf and it tastes really good as bread – kinda like the French baguette, but I’m sure it simply is not a nutritious thing. Too danged easy. Too danged fast, too much yeast. That loaf or crust simply explodes into being!
I loved Bear Mountain Bakers’ bread and cried with the rest of you when Chris had to shut it down just months after Ray died because of the deteriorating wood-fired oven. Their bread had the physicality of their own souls and the taste of their lives, but it is no more. Grandbabies have taken Chris over. Ooh La La Bakery at the Farmers’ Market makes wonderfully seedy and chewy bread, and there are other makers, too, but something goads me into trying to make my own.
Chris gave me some of the Bear Mountain starter when she closed down. I tried that, shared it with a friend who’s keeping it going a good year after I gave it to him, but mine got away from me, and my bread in the meantime didn’t translate into Bear Mountain’s. Even Chris found it simply wasn’t the same without that big brick oven.
I’d had pretty good luck with the no-knead bread, but still wanted something more like sourdough but easier. But just as good. And nutritious.
all mixed up and ready to go
cover with a damp cloth
but not all the way
Well, hold onto your hats. I think I’ve found it. The bread I’m making now could not be easier  and its flavor is the best, with a texture so similar to Bear Mountain’s Honey Oatmeal it’s not even funny. And instead of $$$, it costs ¢¢¢.

I use a tiny amount of yeast – 1/8 teaspoon to 1 ½ pounds of flour – and I let it rise anywhere from 17 to – so far – 24 hours, and I don’t touch it or worry about it in between mixing it and baking it and I do not  add any more flour after it’s risen, so that every speck of it has been fermented. That transforms the wheat into something more easily digestible, some say, and develops the flavor exponentially.  When I put it to rest I cover it with a damp clean (duh) dishtowel, but not completely – I fold it back a tad so that whatever microbes are in my kitchen have a chance to add their power to that little bit of yeast. It takes me 10 minutes to mix it up and 5 minutes to get it in the pan when I’m ready to bake it, and it bakes for give or take 50 minutes. As I say, I don’t touch it in-between. I mix it up at my convenience, and I bake it off the same. At this rate I could make a loaf every day and give 2 out of 3 away. If we all did that we’d be able to feed the hungry. It makes a big loaf (for 2 people) so I can cut it in half and give half to a friend.
19 hours later i'm going to bake it
In the roaring hot pan, dotted with 
olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt,
put the hot cover on and back into
the oven
half done, take it from the pan with tongs and put it back into the oven top down to finish baking


As for ingredients, so far I’ve been using King Arthur’s white but will begin to experiment with Vermont grown grains such as Gleason’s, available at the Co-op. I’ve begun to add seeds – nigella, cumin, hemp hearts, sunflower and sesame seeds, usually a combination of 2 or 3, and not too many, considering all the time the strength of their comparative flavors – and shortly I’ll begin to add in handfuls of different grains – buckwheat and rye, semolina and/or whole wheat. I haven’t added in nuts yet, nor dried fruits, but I can’t wait to experiment with them.
I use a stand mixer to make the dough, but it certainly could be done by hand. I would not use a food processor because the dough needs the action to be stretching and kneading, not cutting. I use a deep cast iron frying pan with a cover to bake the loaf in.
Here’s a basic recipe:
Sharon’s Loaf
  • 1 ½ pound flour (about 4 ½ to 5 cups)
  • 1 rounded teaspoon sea salt – don’t skimp
  • 1/8 teaspoon yeast – skimping allowed
  • scant 2 cups distilled or filtered water
Optional:
  • 3 or 4 tablespoons sunflower seeds plus 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
    or1 heaping teaspoon nigella seeds plus 2 teaspoons of cumin seed and 1 tablespoon sesame seeds.  
In the bowl of a mixer, if you have one, measure the flour, salt, yeast and optional ingredients. Whisk them up and, using a dough hook, add enough of the water to make a moist ball of dough, firm, not runny. If you add too much water just work it a little longer and it will probably come together. If that doesn’t work then add a bit more flour.
Mix it well, then set the bowl aside in a cool place. Dampen a clean dish cloth and cover most of the bowl. Leave it undisturbed for 17 to 24 hours. It will rise to at least double and perhaps even triple its beginning bulk.
When ready to bake the bread, heat a heavy covered casserole in the oven to 450°. Take the pan from the oven and scrape the dough into it– do not add anything to the dough at this point, just scrape. Don’t arrange it or tamp it down. You may drizzle it  with a little olive oil and sprinkle with flakey sea salt, put the cover back on, put the pan in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Take the pan from the oven, the loaf from the pan (it will have almost filled the circumference of the pan, be nicely domed and the crust nicely lapped and cracked and golden brown) and put it back into the oven upside down. Turn the oven to 400° and let the bread bake for another 23 minutes. It will get dark but watch that it doesn’t burn.
Place the loaf on a rack and let it cool, if you can wait. I’m not quite sure what the difference is because the longest time i’ve waited to cut into it is maybe ten minutes.
This produces a very distinct crust that will soften when stored in a bag. The grain will be close with a nice distribution of small air bubbles. It will be moist, not dry. And the flavor will be mellow and grown-up, nicely dressed, nothing raw or fluffy about it. It keeps well.
Imagine a person living in 1375, for instance, who gathers herbs and seeds and nuts and grains and pounds and moistens and mixes and leaves to rise with microbes from his or her own environment and then bakes in embers. That’s a lot of work.
I can imagine that’s what I’m doing except that in my loaf the ingredients are much easier to obtain and I’m leaving the work to fermentation. It would be most interesting to compare loaves made in exactly this way from different environments. I imagine the taste would vary rather stunningly from your kitchen to mine, but I dare say it would all be manna from the gods.
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