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).
Laurel tricked me, too. Many years and therapy sessions later, I’ve almost forgiven her.
OK now I am excited! I am raelly wanting to learn to make homemade bread from scratch and here you go sharing great ideas to do just that! And there are so many others who shared their own versions! My version, this week, is of our family favorite of homemade biscuits not the same I know but its a quick bread that is delicious and pretty healthy.Thanks for the ideas though I can’t wait to try them!
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I have Leslie Mackie’s “Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook”. WE LOVE the cafe and always visit it for lunch when we visit in the city! Now that we have converted to the vegan food lifestyle, I am thinking about baking bread once again!(When all 4 children were home, I often baked bread).
Thanks Janet! I think you’ll really enjoy this recipe–let me know if you try it!
I went to school with Tom back in “Ferry days”. I baked this delicious bread for my husband and 2 kids. they loved it – will be making again and again and again – they hope! Thank you for sharing the recipe.
Hi Dana. I’m so glad you love this bread as much as we do!
This seems somewhat serendipitous- I came upon this recipe after searching for “the best sandwich bread” and started reading your story and beginning to relate to it when I came to the part where you fed the ducks in Lakum Duckum and had to shake my head- I am currently a student at Whitman College. Then I realized only another Whittie would think of baking bread as giving birth and a kitchen being the culmination of bringing together all mother earth has to offer. So thanks for the recipe- I can’t wait to try it out!
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I made this amazing bread today. However, mine did not seem to rise as much as yours. Not sure why…
I used yeast from a packet and made sure it wasn’t expired. I did knead by hand and had to add about 1/4 cup extra flour because it was very sticky to my hands and the kneading surface.
It is cooling now and I cannot wait to ‘unmold’ it!!
Angela, I hope your bread was delicious, even if it didn’t rise as much as you’d hoped. I have had to add more flour to this recipe sometimes as well–but not always. Bread is so funny, and so alive. They say to give a bread recipe three tries before you abandon it, because the process can vary so much with weather, mood, who knows what all. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Have to mix my metaphors a bit between crows and bread! 🙂 First of all, thank you for saving me too from trying Laurel’s basic whole wheat bread as I had been meaning to do for years.
I swear by Laurel’s good soup recipes and make and freeze them often, but it is the sandwich bread recipes you shared that are the ones I will be trying out in cooler Fall weather. 🙂 They sound so delicious and nourishing.
As for crows – I read and loved “Crow Planet” for its thoughtfulness and poetic beauty. Congratulations on a very fine and special book. I am recommending it to everyone I know. Of course as soon as I finished the book, crows did start showing up, both in reality, and as parts of poems or books or articles that I have been reading! I don’t think that would have happened had I not read your book. 🙂
Jean, thanks so much for your kind thoughts–mixed metaphors are always welcome!
Oh, I laugh out loud at your written words about Laurel that I felt but never uttered. I also got the book in college while feeling “nesty” and hippy-dippy with my boyfriend, but only produced brick after brick from those recipes. My breadmaker has become a close friend and I haven’t attempted anything sprouted in a long time. I DID check out the Macrina book from the library, though, last summer, and made a beautiful lemony pull apart loaf that made me think I could take this show on the road! So there, Laurel.
Oh my gosh. I have never made homemade bread that was good..always so hard and dense. This recipe is seriously to die for. YUM!!!!! I topped it with butter and homemade cherry jam and I’m in heaven.
Okay, while this bread looks and sounds amazing, my family is not a big “wheat” loving family. While I’m trying my hand at making homemade bread, I cannot for the life of me find one that won’t crumble when I go to slice it. I typically make my dough in the bread machine, and then bake it in the oven after I’ve let it rise again. Any tips, ideas, or recipes? I do add ground flax to our loaves, and I’m not opposed to using *some* wheat flour…we just don’t want the wheat taste. Thanks!
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I can’t figure out what I’ve done wrong. It sounds so good. I tried doubling the recipe b/c I like to make two loaves at a time. I doubled everything but the salt. I tried to hand knead, but the dough was SOOO sticky. I ended adding at least two cups of extra flour to my doubled recipe. Should I not have doubled all the liquid ingredients? I am waiting for the rise right now, and just hope I haven’t ruined it.
Wow! The best!!! This is my third attempt at any bread, this recipe being the first time trying. I didn’t have the cracked wheat, nuts, or honey so I omitted the two former and used corn syrup in place of honey. Followed the recipe, and oh my goodness this bread is wonderful!!! I had to use about 1/2 c. more of white flour because it was humid, here in Oklahoma, but it did not change the fact that it is delicious! I just kept adding the flour after the 2 1/4 cups a spoonful at a time time until a ball formed. Thank you for this amazing recipe! You are awesome. 😀
I followed the recipe, and it seemed very wet and sticky. After the first it was still very sticky, and could not be formed on the kneading board with out adding more flour, and when I put it into the bread pan, it looked like I was making banana bread.. Oh well, we’ll see.
I haven’t tried your recipe yet. I found this by googling “Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book” because this has been such a great gift to my bread baking. I have made Laurel’s Basic whole wheat bread hundreds of times, and that, with many, many variations, has convinced a surprising number of people that whole wheat bread is good. I did make white bread for years before trying whole wheat, so maybe that helped. I will try your recipe at some point, but give Laurel’s basic whole wheat another try.