“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me singing in the wilderness...”
Believe it or not, my dad used to make me memorize all sorts of poetry when I was a little girl. But it really wasn’t the poetry of adolescence, not even the poetry with which most people were familiar. Take for example this line above; it comes from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam, who was a ninth-century Persian poet (well maybe—he was better at math, apparently). The source of the Rubaiyat is actually quiet suspect, despite its popularity in its heyday (the Victorian Era for those English Lt majors out there), and my dad (who loved the poem) read me quatrain after quatrain until I could recite them back flawlessly.
Why am I telling you this when I’m here to discuss bread and one of the famous bakers who helped me be brave when I was much younger and much less secure in the kitchen?
Because bread is all about history and romance, just like Omar’s poem, and James Beard winner Greg Patent’s wonderful historically inspired cookbook Baking in America, from which I baked my very first successful loaves of bread. I mean, bread can be one of those intimidating from-scratch foods, right? You can actually kill the yeast if you’re not careful—oh my.
I was, however, in good hands with Chef Patent and his easy-to-understand recipes and lively history lessons on baking in early America, “giving us traditional and contemporary favorites from the past 200 years.” Ok, an overachiever—he starts us out in 1796. But if his scope is daunting, his approach to baking is straightforward, always reminding us that the early bakers had it way harder than we did—imagine waiting for two hours as your wood-burning stove heated up to approximately the right temperature! I guess this gives your dough time to rise, IF the yeast you made yourself from your friend’s starter that she got from the local brewery was still active. Breadmaking today is a breeze comparatively speaking, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that during my novice baking days.
What did give me courage was one specific bread recipe in this book—Thirded Bread. Even though this can be slightly tricky because the dough is more than a little tacky to work with, but since I didn’t have any prior experience working with bread dough I didn’t know this. Ignorance is bliss, yes? And so is this bread. It makes two standard loaves. It is always dependable if you follow the directions (Well more or less—I have tweaked it over the years.). It freezes like a dream, toasts beautifully and, in my experience, is loved by everyone. So I thought I’d share it here so you can make it and use it, as I did, with my Classic French Onion Soup.
- One cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal (I use a fine grind cornmeal for this.)
- One and one-half cups water
- One and one-half cups low-fat milk (I changed this a bit, using one cup whole milk and one-half cup buttermilk. I really like the tang the buttermilk adds.)
- One-half cup unsulfured blackstrap molasses
- One-quarter cup of unsalted butter, cut into tiny cubes
- Three and one-half cups all-purpose flour, divided. (I use two cups all-purpose flour and one cup King Arthur Bread Flour for the dough and one-half cup all-purpose flour for the bench.)
- One and one-half cups whole wheat flour
- One cup stone-ground rye flour (Chef Patent recommends Hodgson Mill —my favorite yeast brand, too.)
- One tablespoon salt (fine sea salt for me)
- Two packages quick-rise yeast
- Oil for bowls and pans (Cooking spray is okay, too, but I choose not to buy the aerosol cans.)
- Whisk the cornmeal, water and milk in a heavy saucepan to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook for two minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter, then the molasses. Let stand for 15 minutes or so, until the mixture has cooled to 100 to 110 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
- Meanwhile, Combine the three cups of all-purpose flour (that’s one cup KA bread flour and two cups all-purpose for me), the whole wheat flour, the rye flour, salt and yeast in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the warm cornmeal mixture to the flour mixture, stirring with a heavy wooden spoon to combine. The dough mixture will be quite tacky and wet, so have your bread board, marble counter or whatever you use for a bench well dusted with flour. Turn the dough out onto your floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, pushing the dough down and away with the heal of your well-floured hand and then pulling it back toward you. Continue this for about eight minutes. Add enough of the remaining one-half cup of flour, a tablespoon at a time, to keep the dough from sticking to the surface or your hands. I use a little shaker for this, which allows me to add flour without reaching into the bag and making a mess or dumping too much flour onto the board at once. Just a little suggestion to have at the ready. The more you make bread the less you will rely on exactly measuring the flour on your board. You will start to “feel” what is right and you'll know when the bread bounces back with a “smooth hello I’m here and alive.”
- Place the dough in a large bowl that you have coated with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Turn to coat the entire dough ball. Cover with a damp, clean cloth and place in a warm space free of drafts for one and one-half to two hours, until the dough has risen to double it’s size. To test it, press a finger into the dough; if the indent stays, you are good to go on to the next step. If, not, continue letting the dough rise for a while longer. (See my “typical bread-rising plan” after the recipe card.)
- Punch the dough down to deflate it, place the towel back over the dough and let it rest for five minutes. Turn the rested dough out on a floured surface, give it a couple of quick kneads and divide the dough in half. Place one half back under the towel so that it doesn’t dry out.
- Working with one dough portion at a time, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into about a 14 x 7-inch rectangle. Beginning at one short end, roll the dough up tightly, pressing it firmly as you go to eliminate air pockets. Pinch the ends and the seam tightly together to seal.
- Place each loaf, seam-side down in a standard 8 x 4-inch loaf pan that has been coated well with oil or cooking spray. My go-to here is coconut oil, great for greasing the pan. Put a little light coat of olive oil or cooking spray on the top of the loaves, cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm space for about an hour, until they double in size.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. If you’ve let your dough rise in the oven, but sure you remove it first—ask me why I make a note of that.
- Bake the loaves for 40 minutes, until they are lightly browned and sound hollow when tapped. Remove the loaves from the pans and cool completely on baking racks, though this bread is absolutely delicious warm with melting butter. I often have no control at this moment.
Note that the prep time is the estimated time it will take to set up your ingredients, mix everything together, knead/roll and let the dough rise. So sort of an all-day affair, but so worth it.
Green Gal Bread-Rising Basics…
When I’m making bread, I turn on the oven about an hour before I begin a recipe and preheat to 200. When the indicator goes off, I turn the oven off and place a pan of boiling water in the oven to make the oven humid, as well as warm. When the dough goes in to rise, I sometimes remove the first water bath if it’s cooled a lot and reheat water and place a fresh steamy water bath back in the oven. Gentle warmth—not over 80 degrees–and humidity are what you are looking for. For the second rising, I just put my loaves back in the oven and allow the water bath, now cooled, to remain for the added humidity.
So make history in your house with this lovely recipe for homemade bread. What a romantic way to bring people round the table. I think you will make this recipe a permanent part of your cooking repertoire, for years to come. And if you are looking for more baking treasures like this one, check out Baking in America for everything from Pennsylvania Dutch Tea Rolls to Spanish Buns.