by Julie Hodges
I live on the best block in the city. I know my neighbors, they are my best friends, my mentors, and their children have a toy box in my living room. It is not unusual to see a few of us working together on home improvement projects, enjoying a TTU football game, sharing a meal, or simply swinging on a porch swing sharing pleasant conversation while our children play with each other nearby. I think it is also safe to say that we all really love to eat fresh, healthy good food. We share recipes, canned goods, and things from our gardens. Gene Bals, a retired engineer who live across the street, bakes bread. He shares a half a loaf with a few of us from time to time – which has inspired us to attempt making bread ourselves. Despite my best attempt, I have only been able to produce bricks of bread more suitable as doorstops than for consumption. I decided to ask Gene if he would give a class and share his secrets and he happily agreed. I invited neighbors and friends to my home for a bread making party.
Everyone arrived at 9am on Saturday – loaf pans in hand. The night before Gene and I had gathered ingredients and done a little prep work. Unlike any recipe I had seen, Gene’s (handed down from his mother) called for preparing the flours the night before. We combined yeast, bread flour and water in one bowl and wheat flour, wheat germ, baking soda, salt and buttermilk in another. The bread flour was covered with plastic wrap and stored in the oven overnight to keep the temperature consistent. The wheat flour mixture went into the refrigerator for the night. Gene only uses King Arthur brand flours because of their high gluten protein content. This he says helps the bread to rise. The overnight soaking of the wheat flour in buttermilk helps to soften the wheat – avoiding the doorstop result I usually get.
Our bread making party began with cooking old-fashioned oats with water, adding eggs, butter, salt and honey. We mixed more yeast with raw sugar and warm water. Gene told us he is careful about the temperature of the ingredients. Our yeast was mixed in a ceramic bowl warmed with water. Once it foamed, we added our bread flour mixture. The wheat mixture was brought out of the refrigerator and allowed to reach room temperature. We added golf ball sized pieces of it and kneaded with our hands until both the flour mixtures were combined. Our recipe was meant to yield 6 loaves of bread, so we used a large antique ceramic basin bowl to do our mixing. We added the oatmeal mixture and sprinkled the mixture with more bread flour as we continued to knead the bread into a workable bread dough – in other words – until it was no longer sticky. This whole process, from cooking oatmeal until reaching workable dough, took about an hour and a half. We placed our large pile of dough into a 120 degree oven and let it rise for an hour. When we pulled the antique bowl out of the oven at noon, it resembled a giant muffin – the bread had risen successfully! We kneaded it again. Ed, a neighbor from a block away showed us the way he remembered his mother kneading dough. “She made it every week,” he said, “and I took loaves of it to the nuns at school. It is probably the reason I kept in good standing with them.” Ed and his siblings all helped with the kneading, and from his expert strokes and the way the dough moved easily in his hands, it must have been something like riding a bike – a skill that comes back to you easily.
Once the kneading was done we rolled the giant mass of bread dough into a log and cut it into loaves. I gave everyone a jar of apricot preserves, made by my husband this summer, as a party favor and then everyone departed with their unbaked dough in loaf pans.
Our instructions were to take our pans home, put them in the oven (turned off) and let them rise for another 45 minutes. After that we were to puncture the dough gently with a knife to release some to the air and preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a wide metal pan with raised sides place on the lowest rack. When the oven reached 400 degrees, we poured in 2 cups of water to create steam. The bread in a loaf pan went into the oven and the temperature was decreased to 350 degrees. My house smelled amazing while the bread baked – in fact the whole neighborhood began to smell like a bakery! By 2pm, our loaves were done and mine was absolutely delicious! I will share Gene’s recipe, but only with a warning… Gene did lots of things that were not in the printed materials. His measuring was done mostly by hand and he threw in extra ingredients here and there. We all took notes, but we learned by watching listening and getting our hands dirty, something I am afraid I cannot reproduce for you here. The thing I can do is to encourage you to invite your favorite bread baker over to share their knowledge, experience and to teach you the secrets of knowing when the mixture looks and feels right.
Next week: Home-Brewing