From Masonry to Baking (or, “How I Learned Not to Make Bricks”)

Bread: the Staff of Life.

Bread is the foundation upon which we build our meals (or at least our sandwiches), but a loaf of bread really oughtn’t resemble a building supply. Unfortunately, that’s how most of the bread I’ve attempted to make has come out: hard, tasteless lumps of brick which were more appropriate for constructing a wall than a sandwich.

Now, I know my way around a kitchen: I cook my gyoza from scratch, biscotti are no problem, and I make a killer gruyere and mushroom quiche (I can even pronounce most of those tricky French words they use in cookbooks). But for some reason, bread comes to me to die. Gloriously puffy loaves collapse like fragile soufflé when I put them in the oven, sourdoughs fail to start, whole grain loaves bake to the consistency of cement. I am convinced that there is some cosmic bread-making power that I simply do not possess.

That is, I *was* convinced…until I tried this one.

I adapted this bread dough from my roommate’s bread machine “quick rise” recipe. Many bakers will write me off as a classless slob for this, but I take inspiration where I find it (and if a bread machine is the difference between buying bread and making bread in your home, use the machine).

That said, this is no bread machine bread. I substituted an assortment of hand-milled flours, grains and nuts for the “white flour”, and adjusted the rest of the ingredients to balance. The result is a soft, fluffy crumb with earthy overtones of nuts and honey; perfect for every day use in sandwiches or as toast (perhaps with a home-canned preserve or hand-churned butter).

Basic Oat Nut Sandwich Loaf
note: when grinding wheat for bread at home, we mill with an attachment to our Champion juicer. It gives us a reliable grain (powdery and fine) for baking. I hand-crank all of the other grains and nuts because I like the coarser texture I can get with an adjustable grinder.

400g unbleached white bread flour
100g fresh whole wheat flour
1c +1/3c lukewarm water
1 1/2t dry yeast
1 1/2t salt
2-4T honey (I use 4; I like my bread pretty sweet)
2T milk powder
2T oil – sunflower is ideal; olive oil will leave a noticeable (but not unpleasant) taste
1c milled grains/nuts (I use 3/4c ground whole oats and 1/4c walnuts. For a lighter-textured bread, I sometimes use rolled oats that have been coarsely ground or pulsed in a food processor)

In a small bowl or cup, dissolve the yeast into 1c water. Let stand for a few minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl (or stand mixer with dough hook), combine flour, salt, honey, milk powder, and oil. Add the yeast/water and mix until a ball of dough forms. Then add oats/nuts and knead until fully incorporated (adding the other 1/3c of water as necessary). When using any hand-milled whole grain, it is important to allow the dough extra time to absorb liquids (the coarser the grind, the longer it will need to sit). I let this dough sit for 10 minutes before kneading for another 5 minutes.

Place kneaded dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in a warm area to rise. I usually turn on the oven for a few minutes and then turn it off again – this gets the internal temperature to around 100 degrees, which is great for this recipe. Allow the dough to rise until doubled (about 2 hours).

Remove the dough from the bowl and lightly press out air bubbles. Roll or fold the flattened dough into an oblong shape that will fit into your (oiled) bread pan. Cover *loosely* with plastic wrap leaving space for the dough to rise higher than the sides of the pan (press the plastic down into the pan until it’s right on top of the dough). Put the pan back into the 100 degree oven.

When the bread has again doubled in size (about an hour), turn the oven on to 350 degrees and allow to bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown on the top and baked all the way through. A good way to tell if a loaf is done is to “knock” on the top crust of the bread with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. If you like a hard crust, take the bread directly out onto a cooling rack and let it air-dry. For a softer crust (like a store-bought sandwich loaf), put the bread in an airtight area where it can steam a little. I like to cool my loaves in the toaster oven: it’s got a rack and a small enough space that it retains moisture well (wrapping the loaf in a paper bag while it is still hot will have a similar effect).

Once it is cooled, this bread can be stored in a plastic bag for at least a week at room temperature (though around here it doesn’t ever last that long). It can also be frozen for later use: I like to bake two loaves at a time and slice one loaf for freezing. That way we can take out a few slices and toast them on the mornings we don’t feel like making breakfast (or smear them with ripe avocado and sprinkle them with fresh ground sea salt and pepper, which is my boyfriend’s favorite after-work snack).

I will admit I am still a novice when it comes to bread making (though my challah is improving), but this bread is so easy even *I* can’t screw it up. And that’s saying something.
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