My biological clock started ticking in college. I was, after all, of child-bearing age in body, if not in mind, and I’d always had maternal tendencies. I didn’t want a child yet. I just wanted to give birth. Whenever this compulsion became overwhelming, I baked bread. It was the perfect psychological antidote, providing my hormone-ridden self with a life-giving activity and a rising, belly-like substance, without any need to bed down some hapless frat boy, or produce an actual baby. Instead, I produced unbearably warm and delicious loaves, and topped them with butter and jam. Heaven. (Now that I am a real mother, I think the birth/bread analogy breaks down quite quickly–nothing compares to giving birth. But I still think baking bread might be the next best thing.)
Like many neophyte breadbakers, my first manual was The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book–a beautiful and useful primer, with those homey woodcut illustrations that make you feel hippy, happy, and earth mother-ish, as if your own kitchen is the peaceful center of a gardeny earth. And again like many neophyte breadbakers, I made the ruinous decision to begin my career with Laurel’s “Basic Whole Wheat Bread.” It seemed like a good idea, being the starter recipe in a section that promised “tender, light, moist, and delicious loaves that speak eloquently of the goodness of the wheat itself.” I mixed, I kneaded, I tested, I watched the bread rise. I punched, shaped, and baked. I sat aflutter with excitement over the fragrant wafting goodness that filled my tiny apartment. And then I brought it forth. My bread brick. Utterly disheartened, I tried to salvage something of the experience by sending my leaden bread into the food chain. I hammered off bits to feed the ducks in “Lakum Duckum,” the Whitman College pond, but the bread morsels were so dense that they sunk to the bottom before the ducks could get them (try as they might), at which point I started to cry. It may seem silly to apply a moralistic label to something as innocuous as bread, but let us not mince words. Laurels Basic Whole Wheat Bread recipe is evil. It will break your teeth and, worse, your spirit. You will think you are a failure, but it’s not you. It’s this bad, bad recipe. (I still recommend the rest of the book, though!)
I might have given up on bread altogether, if not for my friend Susan’s mother, who produced beautiful, healthy loaves with the seeming effortlessness born of long experience. I told her about my bread. “Oh honey-baby, ” she crooned, as she wrapped her arms about my neck, “don’t ever make Laurel’s Basic Bread.” In the intervening decades (oh dear, is that plural?) I’ve grown as a baker. There have been loaves of agony and loaves of ecstasy. I want to share a bit of the ecstasy.
The best sandwich bread recipe I have ever found is the Cracked Wheat Walnut Cider Loaf in Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook.
It’s a relatively simple, one-day, two-rise bread, with no starter. It’s textured, tasty, nourishing, loved by ten-year-old daughters and husbands, and is long-lasting (one loaf will stay fresh enough for the whole school week’s worth of sandwiches). It’s not a crusty, serve-with-soup-or-pasta artisan bread. It’s for slicing, and topping with peanut butter and jam, or cheese and tomatoes. As my long-suffering husband (a carnivore living with two vegetarians, and enduring a wife who makes him tofurkey-sprout sandwiches) puts it, “I’d eat anything on this bread.” My, is it good. With the publisher‘s blessing, here it is:
3/4 cup cracked wheat
1 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 1/4 cup apple cider (or apple juice seems to work just fine)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup course whole-wheat flour (plus a little more for sprinkling on top)
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1. In a small bowl, cover the cracked wheat with the boiling water. Stir until moistened, and let sit for 10 minutes, allowing the water to be absorbed.
2. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast for 10 minutes in a 350 F oven. Let them cool, then chop coarsely, and set aside.
3. Heat the apple cider until it’s just warm to the touch, and pour it into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add yeast and honey, and whisk until the yeast is dissolved. Let sit for five minutes. Add the plumped cracked wheat, flours, salt, and canola oil. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed for about a minute to combine ingredients, then mix on medium speed for 10 minutes (don’t leave your mixer unattended–it could “walk” over the edge of the counter!). The dough will form a loose ball at the end of the hook. Add walnuts and mix for two more minutes. (If mixing by hand, stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients come together, then knead by hand for about ten minutes. Add walnuts, and knead until they are evenly distributed.)
4. Transfer dough to an oiled, medium bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let it proof in a warm room (it should be 70-75 degrees) for two hours. The dough will almost double in size.
5. Pull the dough onto a floured surface, and punch it down with your hands to release any air bubbles. Form the dough into rectangle, about 12 x 6 inches, with the long side facing you. Fold the short ends onto the top, meeting in the middle, then starting with the end closest to you, roll the dough away from you into a tight log.
6. Place the loaf into an oiled 9x 5 inch loaf pan (if you have one of the taller, 4 inch high pans, that works best. Mine is the usual 3 inches high, and that’s fine). Cover with plastic wrap, and let proof for an hour at room temperature. The loaf will rise a bit beyond the top of the pan. While it’s proofing, preheat the oven to 385 F.
7. Remove the plastic, and dust the top with course whole-wheat flour (I like to use a little sifter). Place the pan on the center rack and bake for about 50 minutes, until the loaf is medium brown on top. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the pan to release the loaf, and invert the pan to remove the bread!
This all might seem time consuming, but the mixing takes only about twenty minutes, and I find that the proofing and baking of bread lends a gentle rhythm to my day–breaking up the time into sensible segments that somehow allow me to accomplish more than I would otherwise. And there are few things I do that are so simple, yet make my beloved co-inhabitants (not to mention myself) so very happy. Enjoy.
When in Seattle, be sure to visit Macrina Bakery! The rest of the cookbook is completely wonderful, too.
(Don’t have time for a yeasted bread? Here’s my quick bread recipe, that also works great for sandwiches).