Our daily bread

August 13, 2008

We go through a lot of sandwich bread in our house. At least, it seems that way — though I’m sure there are plenty of families out there who could give us a run for our carb-consuming money. I think it feels like we eat vast amounts simply because I have a hard time keeping up with us, on the production side of things. Yes, I try to make all of our sandwich bread. This is not because I think that homemade bread will save us from disease; nor is it because I’m determined to martyr myself to a home-cooking god. I do it for the same reason I do a lot of things in my kitchen; I’m both finicky and cheap. That, and the fact that my 2-year old can’t have any byproduct of corn in anything he eats; you would be surprised how that limits his bread-eating options — even from the best local bakeries.

My adventures in bread-making started about 6 years ago, when we first moved to Athens. They began with the requisite collection of brick-like loaves, pretty much inedible. At the time, my sources were a vintage, borrowed copy of The Laurel’s Kitchen Breadbook and one of the Moosewood cookbooks (I was definitely aiming for a 100% whole-wheat loaf). I was frequently frustrated with the instructions, which seemed vague, as well as the if you do this, then your bread will work mentality which I found to be flat-out false. I made small improvements over those first months, but can primarily chalk all that time up to experience; I was learning how the dough was supposed to look and feel. (Feel free at this point to call me a slow learner.)

There are a few things that finally brought me to the point of making bread that was both tasty and consistent. I present these things to you as disclaimers; since I will be writing out our bread recipe, you should know that there are a few unique requirements that can be cost-prohibitive, or just make things more complicated:

  • I knead my bread with a Kitchenaid stand mixer (although I do finish it off by hand on a wooden board). Whole-wheat breads start out much stickier than white breads, and are therefore much more labor-intensive kneading entirely by hand. I let the mixer do most of the work. This also helps prevent the easy and disastrous habit of adding too much flour to your dough (the number-one reason you can end up with brick-loaves).
  • I use freshly-milled whole wheat flour. I haven’t yet decided to invest the $250 required to purchase my own grain mill (though I hope to, someday). But I’ve had the privilege of being friends with someone who has made that investment, and she has ever-so-graciously shared that appliance with me for the past 3 or so years. For most of that time, we purchased our wheat in great bulk quantities (the kind of quantities that make people wonder if you’re expecting the world to end) because it was cheaper. But lately I’ve just been buying whole wheat berries (hard red winter variety) from the bulk section of a whole food grocery. She grinds them for me in about 5-pound batches, and I store the flour in my freezer — very important for whole wheat flour, which goes rancid very quickly.
  • Last but not least, I gave up my ideal of bread made solely with whole-grain flour. I discovered that the best texture can only be achieved when some unbleached white flour is used — it lends the softness that I love, and really, what does it hurt? All whole-grain bread won’t do much good if no one eats it.

Truth be told, I’m still not quite happy with the texture of this bread. My favorite loaf right now is from a local group called Luna Baking Company — I can buy their breads at Earth Fare and the Saturday Farmer’s Market. They have a whole wheat loaf that is what I consider the perfect texture; it has a lovely chewiness that I have yet to achieve in my bread. We get it when I get behind in my self-imposed bread-making responsibilities, but it’s not cheap — $4 a loaf, and we go through it fast. I hope to corner one of their bakers at some point, to see if they’d be willing to share some ingredient percentages or other trade secret for attaining a chewy loaf.

If you’re interested, you can look here to see my current recipe for 2 loaves of wheat sandwich bread. If you try it, as always, I’m interested in your results. Or, if you’re a veteran bread-baker, and have some suggestions on how it can be improved, I’d love to hear them as well. If you’ve never attempted bread, I encourage you to do so at some point. It is one of those practices/art forms/crafts that lends itself to utmost satisfaction. There’s just nothing like homemade bread, especially when your hands (ahem, with the help of your handy dough hook) were the ones that created it.

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