Mistakes, in my experience, can be handled one of two ways: as opportunities to whip oneself with a wet noodle, or as moments to take stock and do differently, next time. Being me, I usually pick the first route a few (dozen) times, until at some point I remember the second. At least I remember, eventually. Fool me thrice, or however it goes.
But every now and again, I wise up a little ahead of schedule. Take this winter. We left the house. And not just to make the school bell.
See, last winter, once the thermometer settled into the teens—which is to say, December to March—we followed the lead of the bears and the bunnies and hibernated, until the spring thaw. It wasn't so bad—I'm a card-carrying inside dog—but I did begin to wonder what we were missing.
So this winter, our second year here, we made an effort to go outside. It helps that we now know we will not die upon leaving the doorstep. It also helps that we now own snow boots, snow pants, serious coats, balaklavas, big scarves, thick mittens, and warm woolly hats in triplicate. I'd never heard the word 'balaklava', before we moved. The boys now consider them mandatory, like socks. You could argue last year's burrowing was no mistake at all, but a sheltering of the innocents.
Given these advancements, we realized this winter that an outdoor adventure was not beyond our purview. Even in deep, dark February. So a few weeks back, we packed snacks, bundled up, and hit the road to one of our favorite parks. I'd always considered it a three-season park. I'd always been wrong. It was majestic in winter.
The trails were hushed, save the crunch-crunch of our boots. The spare architecture of the forest was stark, and stunning. Seed pods, orphan leaves, plant particulars that would be lost entirely in spring's greening, were botanic pop art in this monochrome month. There were snow clods for kicking, sticks for excavating, lingering beech leaves to stand-in for hidden gold. Everything we needed, in short, to break up the indoor monotony we've logged by late winter.
And I learned something. Accustomed as I've become to the snow, here, I realized I've known only its urban side: slushy, salted streets; dirty, plowed drifts; row upon row of snowman-dotted lawns. Man vs. nature, game point to the former. Here, in the woods, was white everywhere, unmanicured and exquisite. It falls, and rests, for weeks on end, waiting patiently, silently, for anyone or no one. We were missing something, extraordinary.
We're still only skimming the veneer of Ohio's cold outdoors; we've yet to go skiing, snow-shoeing, serial hiking. But to get out a bit, around the block, to the park, is a start, and a fine one, for me, anyway. And all it took was the doing.
I mention all this because I've been reflecting on bread-baking, on the fierce mystique and funny beliefs that cloud our thinking on (deep breath) yeast. I've always felt a little lucky that my initiation into the subject came at the gentle hands of Laurie Colwin. When pregnant with my first, I inhaled Home Cooking, which now has a much saucier cover than it did then. What hasn't changed is the truth and solace in her essay, Bread Baking Without Agony.
In a half-dozen pages, Colwin takes up bread's demanding reputation, and sweetly pokes a hole in it, a mile wide. Better, she offers this brilliant, liberating path: make bread around your schedule, not the other way round. For years, off and on, I've baked bread on this premise, lazily turning out loaves whenever the spirit moved me.
And then, I learned of an easier way, the now-famous, much-lauded, hands-off loaf. I wanted to talk revolution, today. I spent all of fall, trying to fall in love with no-knead bread. I read rave reviews, brought home books, baked loaf after 5-minute artisan loaf. My mistake was not in the trying, but in ignoring all the signs that we were not meant to be. I realized this one December dinner, when we sat down to soup and hockey pucks. Inedible would be a euphemism, here.
I am certain the fault sits squarely in my lap. No-knead bread is becoming the loaf loved 'round the world, and I know all those fans cannot be wrong. I loved my first loaves, also. But all my recipes yielded four loaves, since the dough can be stored for two weeks, and baked off whenever the warm bread whim strikes. I loved this premise. Just not my results. I tweaked and re-read and minded all sorts of details, but those second through fourth loaves were uniformly dreadful, heavy and leaden and just plain sad.
I do not want to put you off of no-knead bread; I am certain I flubbed some obvious essential. I have never been good with the obvious. Add simple to the equation—stitch a button? bake a cupcake?—and I'm pretty much guaranteed to fail. And fail I did, over and over, finally so frustrated I abandoned bread-baking. Until I remembered how easy it once was.
I remembered Colwin, and years of good loaves, and throwing them together without even thinking. I never knew to mind the kneading, until I learned I ought to avoid it like a scourge. (True, my old KitchenAid makes it effortless, though I still sometimes knead by hand, for the pleasure.) There was no overnight chilling for 'easy' handling, no commitment to four loaves with every batch, no permanent partitioning of my fridge for ongoing dough storage. I could do that again, I realized.
And so I did. Again and again. And fell in love all over with easygoing, old-fashioned bread.
What I want, I guess, is to re-state for the record how accessible and adaptable ordinary bread-baking is. And always has been. The basic routine is mix, knead, and rise twice, first for two hours, then for one. The extraordinary bit is that this is just a blueprint, that it's a few minutes' work, woven into one's day, whenever. I've let the first rise run all morning, and cut the second to half an hour. I've mixed dough in the evening, refrigerated it until morning, and felt wildly smug for making bread in my sleep.
Last week, I had ten minutes to get myself and two sick kids to a meeting. I chucked the flour et al. into the mixer to knead, worked four warm hands and feet into mittens and shoes, tucked the then-supple wad into a buttered bowl, and scooted out the door to do our thing. We came home to a gorgeous pillow of dough, which was split into tins and promptly forgotten while we busied each other with noses and fevers. At five o'clock, I found my lost loaves, tucked them into the oven, and called it supper. Bread-baking is no ball-and-chain, but the best sort of tuck-and-go friend in need.
Indeed, the main reason I bake bread at all is because it's frequently faster and simpler than buying. We still buy it often—I'm no homemade bread loyalist—and in the summer, we change that 'often' to 'always'. But my bread of choice here is fifteen minutes away, half an hour, coming and going. In the careful calculus that is errand-running with young kids, the path of least resistance often leads straight to the mixer. (Better and cheaper also figure in, but only in that order. Priorities.)
If you are not inclined toward bread baking, I don't intend to convert you. And if you've already got a favorite loaf, you are well underway, and I've nothing newsworthy to offer. The sandwich loaf of which I'm speaking today is nothing special, and absolutely ordinary. I mention it only because ordinary's been inordinately hard for me to find—another one of those devilishly elusive "simple" standards—and having finally found it, it seemed suitable to share.
Here are our criteria for a fine everyday loaf: The crust must be golden, light and sweet. (I adore the looks of this oatmeal loaf, but my kids would spy that mahogany rim, and reject it on sight. Sillies.) The crumb must be tender and toothsome, not just fresh from the oven but also four days out. Too many homemade loaves go from ravishing to doorstop, and doorstops do not a nice PB&J make. And yet, the crumb must have integrity, also, firm enough to allow a clean, quarter-inch slice. Too many homemade loaves must be sliced in slabs to hold up, and no one wants a two-inch sandwich. This one checks all three boxes. I love it for that.
And then there's the color, oh, the color. For my part, I love a rich multi-grain loaf, preferably inlaid with all manner of mixed seeds. My kids would prefer bright, blinding white. Such are the wages of public school lunchrooms: the opportunity to inspect the meals of one's peers. I've refused to give ground for years, now, insisting on 100% whole wheat. Until last fall, when my ten-year-old came home, and announced for the first time that he wanted to buy lunch. Why? "So I can buy chips and juice and fruit chews and cookies and a bag of M&M's. Lunch!" Seriously? It happens. Just not in my house. Compromise time, on the whole color thing.
So we tried out several combinations and arrived at this loaf, which I informally call "blond". It is half white flour and half white whole wheat, with a heap of wheat germ to amp up the good. The slices you see here were from one of our test loaves, baked entirely of white whole wheat flour. It was alright, but we all voted for milder; the recipe below yields a loaf several shades lighter. It stands up swimmingly to peanut butter and honey, and cozies up to sharp cheddar, grainy mustard and aged ham. Toasted, it's lovely, crisp-edged and soft-middled. And sliced thick (since you can), it makes magnificent french toast.
And while we're talking "since you can", it is worth noting that when you do your own, you can do it up all kinds of jolly. We often split the dough—one plain, one fancy—and line a rectangle with cinnamon sugar or chocolate chips. The possibilities are endless, here: cheese and herbs, nuts and dried fruit, fresh berries and white chocolate, you get the picture. And we always snitch a piece for small fingers, to roll and poke and twist and and and... We've had bread bunnies and bread letters and bread Bowsers and bread snowmen; just bake with the big bread, but for less time.
Play with it, or don't, or fiddle next round but not now, whatever suits your time and temperment. As for me, I'll play with no-knead's crusty incarnation again, eventually; Julie's riff on Jim's loaf is calling my name. But until then—and I guess this is what I came here to say, today—old-fashioned bread-baking's such a sweet, simple grace, relaxed, wonder-filled, a walk in the park.
Our Everyday Half & Half Loaf
adapted from The River Cottage Family Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr
Makes 2 Loaves
We always make two loaves, often two different loaves (see above) from the same batch; just as often, two plain. We go through a lot of bread. Cooled and well-wrapped, bread freezes beautifully.
I buy yeast by the two-pound bag at Costco, because (1) it is always impeccably fresh, and (2) it costs half as much as a (tiny) grocery store box. Store it in the fridge, and you can use it all year. As to water temperature, simply run the tap until it is very, very warm — a few degrees shy of too hot to touch.
3 1/3 cups white whole wheat flour
3 1/3 cups unbleached white flour
heaping 1/2 cup wheat germ (optional)
4 teaspoons salt (1 Tbs + 1 tsp)
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey or sugar
2 1/3 cups very warm water (approximately, see below)
In a 4-cup capacity measure, add olive oil and honey, then fill with very warm water to bring up to the 2 1/2 cup mark.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine flours, wheat germ (if using), salt and yeast. Turn to low and stir briefly, to combine. With mixer still on low, slowly pour in oil-honey-water mixture. Increase speed to medium (KitchenAid: 4). If dough is sticky (clings to the side of the bowl), add a Tablespoon of flour. If dough appears crumbly and dry (won't come together), add another Tablespoon of warm water. Knead on medium 6-8 minutes. Dough will be a cohesive ball, and will have developed a slight sheen.
(Alternatively, in a large bowl, combine dry ingredients, then add wet, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine. When mixture is mostly homogenous, turn out onto a clean, floured board, and knead by hand until dough turns silky and supple, about 10 minutes.)
Turn dough out into a well-buttered bowl, cover with a clean tea towel, and set in a warm spot to rise. I simply set it on an interior counter, away from drafty windows. (Alternatively, you can refrigerate your dough overnight for a long, slow first rise.) After 1 1/2 - 2 hours, your dough will have doubled in size and become billowing and elastic. Poke it with a finger; if the hole remains, you are ready for rise 2. (If not, allow it another half hour).
Butter two bread pans lavishly. Punch down your dough (this is the second best part, right after eating your bread, hot and buttered), turn it out onto a clean surface, and knead briefly, 30 seconds or so. Divide in two portions, and form each into two 'sausages', and place into bread pans, seam-side down.
(Alternatively, for chocolate or cinnamon bread, flatten one portion into a rough 9" x 12" triangle, and sprinkle surface with a heaping half-cup of chocolate chips, or butter and cinnamon-sugar. Roll from short to short side, tuck in ends, and place, seam-side down, in pan.)
Cover dough-filled pans with the clean towel, return to warm spot, and rise a second and final time, 1 hour. Loaves will puff up proudly under their towels, looking ridiculously cheery. You may puff up proudly, also.
Preheat oven to 350°. Place tins in oven, and bake about 30 minutes, until your house smells exquisite and the loaf tops are golden. To check for doneness, tip a loaf into your (oven-mitted) hand, and thump the bottom. If it squashes and thuds, return to the oven for five minutes more. If it sounds hollow, it is done.
Authorities say to let a loaf rest an hour out of the oven before slicing. I consider ten minutes a show of tremendous restraint.