Growing up, my parents shared parenting and household responsibilities pretty equally. But there were a few things that only my dad did (and still does):
- tap trees and boil sap for maple syrup (though we all helped)
- bake bread
It’s this last one that I always associate with him. Whenever he has some time off from work, or we’re on our annual vacation in Ontario, Canada, you can find my dad in the kitchen. His creased Beard on Bread book opened to his favorite recipe (cracked-wheat or raisin bread), he’ll have the counter cleared and dusted with flour, a smooth dough laid out for kneading. He takes his time with the dough, kneading it for ten minutes as James Beard suggests, and he makes sure the temperatures are just right so he doesn’t kill the yeast. His loaves are light and fluffy, with a tender crumb, perfect for toasting and buttering for breakfast. They’re the product of years of trial and error.
My dad is the one who taught me how to bake bread. It’s the one cooking/baking technique that I distinctly recall learning. He told me how to touch the side of a pan of warmed milk to see if it was the right temperature before stirring in yeast. (They’re delicate organisms, yeast.) He reminded me to obey recipe instructions to the letter. He taught me how to press down on fresh dough with the heel of my hand, then turn and fold and press again, to knead it perfectly. He reminded me to heat the oven just barely before putting in the dough to rise. He showed me with every recipe how carefully you have to watch the dough to make sure it rises enough, but not too much.
Whenever I make bread now, I think about my dad and his baking lessons. I have my own trusty copy of Beard on Bread (just a few years old), as well as two scratched loaf pans he lent me. I groan when I have to knead the dough the first time for ten whole minutes, but that’s what you need to get the yeast evenly distributed (according to James Beard). And it’s what my dad said, so that’s what happens.
Still, I have a ways to go. I get impatient with the second rising and neglect to wait until the loaves are fully risen to start baking. I’ve killed at least one batch of yeast in the past few years. And the crumb isn’t quite right.
But I’ll keep trying.
This first recipe from The “Settlement” Cook Book is a basic one. Essentially it’s whole-wheat bread (“entire” being a different way of saying “whole,” I assume). It’s called “entire wheat” in contrast to graham flour, which is wheat flour that’s been ground differently so it’s coarser. Apparently Mrs. Simon Kander was a huge fan of graham flour (healthful and diet-reforming flour that it was). But I’d just bought 5 pounds of whole-wheat flour, so I made “entire wheat bread” instead.
It’s a dense, toothsome loaf, perfect for slathering with butter or jam. It’s barely sweetened by the addition of molasses, and it feels much more healthful than other kinds of whole wheat bread, since there’s no butter. Additionally, Kander tells us not to let the loaves quite double in size on their second rising, so they bake up small and dense. I’m not sure if that’s the way they should be. Maybe that’s due to the whole-wheat flour?
I should probably ask my dad.
Entire Wheat Bread
(adapted from The “Settlement” Cook Book and Beard on Bread)
2 cups milk
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/3 cup molasses
1 tsp salt
4 2/3 cups whole wheat flour, plus more for kneading
Over medium-high heat, scald the milk (heat it until bubbles form around the edges of the pan, then remove from heat). Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. You can test the water by dipping a finger in it or touching the side of the bowl; if it’s a comfortable temperature, you can add the yeast. You’ll know the yeast is proofing if bubbles appear in the yeast-water mixture.
Add the molasses and salt to the milk and let cool. Once the milk mixture is lukewarm (again, touch the side of the pan; it should be warm but not hot), add the yeast mixture.
Transfer the liquid to a large bowl and add the flour, one cup at a time, beating until well incorporated. It will get harder to beat by the third or fourth cup of flour, and you might have shaggy bits of dough that refuse to mix in. That’s fine. Once the dough is pliable, transfer to a clean, floured space (like the counter), along with the rest of the floury bits. Knead for ten minutes until most of the bits of dough are well incorporated and the dough is elastic.
Butter a large bowl (you can use the same one, just rinse it out) and place the dough in the bowl, turning to coat with butter. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about an hour.
Once the dough is risen, punch down and form into two loaves. Place the dough in two buttered loaf pans. Cover and let rise until not quite doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Bake the loaves for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 F and bake for 20-25 minutes more, or until the loaves sound hollow when you tap the crust.