28 August 2009

Basic Bread

Last year I went on a "basic bread quest". Not limiting myself to cookbooks I owned, I also borrowed from the library and found recipes on the internet that seemed to my liking. I was looking for a basic whole-wheat bread (but not ALL whole wheat) that wasn't too complicated and would give consistent results. Each time I made bread I used a new recipe, trying some a second time if they seemed promising. But for all my searching, it came back to the beginning for me. Esther Shank.

For some of you the name "Esther Shank" is totally meaningless. For others, it is roughly synonymous with a warm, busy kitchen where economy and good-sense reign; nothing is wasted, least of all pounds off the cook's middle. The back of her cookbook (titled, "Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets") effuses with some charming rhyme: "Mennonite homemaker Esther H. Shank . . . has collected and perfected good recipes and food tips for 25 years. In this remarkable collection of more than 1,000 recipes and hundreds of hints for success, she shares her legacy of kitchen know-how". Indeed.

While there are some wonderful standard recipes (most of them marked by tell-tale oil or cocoa stains) that I can personally vouch for--Basic Pancakes, Delicious Chocolate Cake, and Buttermilk Biscuits for example--many of the recipes and ideas in the book seem outdated and unusable. The "Party Foods Recipes" section in particular takes my "Whoa-There!" cake. Besides "Surprise Hamburger Muffin Cups" and "Hot Dog Treats" (okay, so I admitted to liking hot dogs, but they either have to be from the diner downtown or sizzled to perfection over a campfire), there is the inscrutable "Elegant Party Loaf". The idea behind this is to take a loaf of bread, cut it into four horizontal slices, and slather each layer with a highly-mayonnaisized salad, chicken, egg, and ham. The loaf then gets cut so that each slice has layers of bread and salads. Elegant, no? From the first time I laid eyes on this page, I have been puzzled and repulsed.

But despite these occasional culinary ditches, I keep going back to Esther Shank for invaluable advice (on such varied topics as mattress-rotation and egg-poaching) and some of those standard recipes that will never go out of style. My basic bread recipe happens to be one of those. I have actually paper-clipped page 60 so that I can easily find it when the bread-baking urge hits.

My only changes to the recipe have been to use a 1-1 ratio of white to whole wheat flour rather than 2-1, respectively. I also have found that baking my loaves for the recommended 40 minutes results in a dry, crumbly texture rather than soft and moist how I like my bread.

Between the two of us, here's what I end up making (a half-recipe that yields two loaves):

Basic Whole Wheat Bread

1/2 cup warm water
1 1/2 TBSP yeast
1 TBSP sugar
3/4 cup hot milk
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 TBSP molasses
2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups water
3 cups white flour (plus enough to gain the proper texture)
3 cups whole wheat flour (I often substitute one cup of another whole grain flour, such as rye tonight)

Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water and let sit. In a large-ish bowl dump oil, brown sugar, molasses and salt. Pour milk over all to dissolve. Add 1 1/4 cups cold water. Stir in yeast mixture. Add flours and knead until dough is sticky-smooth. I leave it a little sticky, not kneading too long. I then remove the dough from the pan and dump in about 2 TBSP of oil, returning the dough to the bowl and turning to coat. Cover and let rise until double. Shape loaves (2 9X5) and let rise again until double. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Once the bread comes out I use my mom's old trick to keep the crust soft: cover with towel, then a layer of plastic (a grocery bag usually covers both loaves), then another towel. Let cool. Before it's completely cool, I generally can't resist slicing into one of the loaves to "test" it. With butter and honey. YUM. I think my taste-tester said something like: "That's good, honey".

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