Friday, January 20, 2012

Give Us This Day

From one hot mess to another
It was three years ago, in the very small kitchen of our Shrewsbury apartment, that I stood poised at the counter with pen in hand, ready to write the secrets to my mom's bread recipe. I was so excited to share my childhood treat with H, memories of getting off the school bus to a slice of warm, fresh bread slathered in butter and jam filling my head.

Until this weekend, each time I made the bread was an epic disappointment. It always started out with so much promise-a dough that was sticky but not too sticky. It rose nicely and then smelled amazing in the oven and then, without fail, what came out of the pans were two bricks with a middle that was doughy, and outsides that would have burned had I left them in any longer.

I should have known that taking the recipe over the phone from my mother, who was probably not reading it from her well-loved card, but playing spider solitaire and absentmindedly rattling it off to me, was not the best idea. But I lived across the continent and it felt like the perfect cure to my homesickness, so I went against my instincts and transcribed her words faithfully.

After the second dose of yeasty failure, I was reading my friend's blog in which she was posting about making bread. I stopped at one point, re-read with a sinking feeling and then immediately called my mother. Without so much as a hello I blurted 'MOM! Are you supposed to let the bread rise TWICE?!'

Mom: Of course.

Me: That would have been a really nice piece of information to share IN THE RECIPE YOU GAVE ME.

Okay, deep breaths. Now that I knew the secret, I'd give 'er another shot. After penciling in LET RAISE A SECOND TIME on the recipe page, I busted out my flour and yeast. The second rising did add some loftiness but, alas, bricks with doughy centers. The original recipe makes four loaves, but I had been cutting it in half. Good thing, or I'd have now produced a dozen loaves of bread that were only partially edible.

Feeling defeated, I continued to purchase quite tasty and edible bread from the supermarket and local bakeries, too scared to further deflate my baking ego. I feel like I'm pretty handy in the kitchen so I could not figure out what I could possible be doing wrong. Everything else about the recipe was allegedly correct, so what was I doing wrong? After answering the same questions to 'helpful' people; yes, I was using fresh yeast, yes my water was hot enough, YES I had good flour, I just felt dejected.

My mother-in-law came for a visit and I asked what she thought. She saw one thing right away; for the amount of flour I was using (for the full yield of four loaves), there was no way that two teaspoons of yeast would do the job. Also, she thought that using all whole wheat would be too dense. Since I knew that my mom had always used all whole wheat flour, because I watched her mill the wheat into flour (Yep, I have a lot to live up to) I knew it must be the yeast. Another friendly call and another pencil mark on the recipe, and I still didn't have the heart to try again.

Which leads me to this weekend. I pulled out the battered recipe page and told J that he was my witness; if I couldn't get it to turn out this time, I was waiting until Fancy Nancy could get over the mountain and prove that this recipe actually works. I had just been at my mom's house and was lamenting my inability to reproduce her bread, so armed with her in-person confidence boosting I felt ready.

I also decided that this time, I'd go big-all four loaves, baby! I dissolved the yeast into water that was 'hot enough that you'd take a shower in it, but not so hot that you wouldn't wash your face or hair in it' (thank you Our Best Bites for that perfect description!) and a splash of honey to make the yeast work better. 2 TABLESPOONS of yeast, that is. I measured out the first seven cups of flour into the mixer and added 5 cups of hot tap water and watched it mix away. So far, so good. I then added salt, oil, honey and continued mixing before adding another cup of flour and then the prepared yeast mixture. Everything was working so well, I was starting to get a little giddy.

The mixing bowl was a little full, yet I still had '4-5' cups more of flour to add. What the...? I added one careful cup, and almost half of it swished out of the bowl and onto the counter, but I was not deterred. I  raised the arm of the mixer, got the flour back into the bowl and let the hook work the flour in a little and then tried to gingerly add another cup. After the majority of that cup not only fell onto the counter, but onto the floor...I took a deep breath and picked up the phone.

My cute dad's voice answered the phone and I asked through clenched teeth if mom was home. Trying to bend over and sweep up the mess of the flour I'd already stepped through twice trying to get the mixer to cooperate, I snapped upright when her unsuspecting hello rang into my ears. 'MOTHER, I'm about to throw this bread dough across the room. How in the world do you make the whole batch at once?! We have the same mixer!!!'

Mom: 'Oh, honey. That was with my Bosch. With the Kitchenaide I have to cut the recipe in half.'

Me: (deep breath, swallow bile/tears rising in my throat) 'I now have a blob of dough that is not nearly flour-y enough in my mixer, and enough flour on the floor to make another loaf...HELP ME FIX THIS!' This said while I narrowly avoided falling on my backside, due to a nice sheath of flour on my slippy-slidey flip flops.

To her credit, she remained polite and talked me down. A quick smear of vegetable oil on the counter, I put the whole sad blob on the counter and hacked it in half with a knife. I returned one half to the mixer, then hand-kneaded the second half, adding a good amount of flour. I have to say, the hand-kneading was very soothing, even though I'd never done it before, and wasn't sure I'd know how. I was probably a lot more accurate with the flour, by hand-kneading, because I could feel when I'd added enough instead of just guessing. I did the same with the other half, then let them rise in greased and covered bowls for about two hours, until they were doubled in size.

I then divided them into four loaf pans, punched down the loaves and let them rise again until they were about a third larger (about 35 minutes), then baked them at 350 for 35 minutes and turned them out immediately.

I cut into the first loaf with trepidation and breathed a sigh of relief. It was beautifully crusty on the outside, completely done on the inside and with butter and honey, oh-my-God-perfection. It was even good enough for me to share a loaf with the neighbor.

So, there you have it-my tale of dough woe all tidied up after three short years, and many conversations with dear old mom. And, without further ado-here's the 'Fool Proof' Honey Whole Wheat Bread that Fancy Nancy's been a'making with success for years.

NOTE: This recipe yields four loaves, if you have a smaller mixer, do one half at a time in order to fit.

1. Combine 5 c. hot tap water with 7 cups of ww flour (I used about 3 cups of 'better  for bread' flour and 4 cups WW) in the bowl of your mixer and mix on low speed.

2. In a 1/2 c. of very warm water, stir in 1t honey, then sprinkle 2T(ablespoons) of yeast.

3. To the flour and water in the mixer, add 2T salt, 2/3 c. oil and 2/3 c. honey-continue to mix until well blended, then add 1c. flour to the mixture.

4. Add the prepared yeast mix to the mixer and blend thoroughly.

5. At this point, you can either a)add 4-5 cups more flour and knead in the mixer with the dough hook for about 10 minutes, or b) turn the dough out onto a greased countertop and add flour in as you hand-knead it for about the same amount of time. The dough should be slightly sticky. Be careful not to add too much flour.

6. Place in a greased bowl and cover, allowing to rise until doubled in size. (approximately 2 hours depending on the temperature of your house)

7. Divide and place into greased pans, poke with your fingers to punch it down and let rise until another 1/3 in size is added (about 35 minutes).

8. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes until the sides have pulled away from the pan. Turn out immediately. Attempt to resist urges to eat the entire loaf with butter and honey on the first day. Cool completely and store in bags on the counter.


JT said...

Hi! Just came across your blog. Great writing! I'm glad you finally got that bread recipe down. I, too, would have been in tears!!! =)


kyleen said...

Ahhh, I know exactly how you feel! I love eating bread, but only when it's fresh. It doesn't get any fresher than homemade, so I tried to make bread at home. And then I ended up with several bricks. Right now I'm taking a baking course on breads and it's working out beautifully.

I'm so glad you got your bread recipe to work in the end!

Janice said...

I love fresh bread! I remember going to my Grandmother's on Saturday. That was the day she made bread. The house smelled amazing! I am not a great baker and bread is scary to me. Glad you finally did it!