I remember the first time. I was just a kid. My sister and I were stuck in the back of Dad’s ’46 Chrysler sedan. With no seatbelts, the cavernous gray velvet interior became our mobile play space during a two-week road-trip through New York State’s Finger Lake region. Dad loved to drive. It was the ’50s after all, and ‘hitting the open road’ and ‘getting your kicks on Route 66’… was the BIG thing. For me, it was mostly a bore, an endless succession of chrome dinners, lakefront cabins and Bates Motels.
And driving. Always driving.
“Leave your sister alone! Let her read! Just count the telephone poles… then you won’t be bored…”
“…three hundred and twenty six… three hundred and twenty seven…”
Dad thought the highlight of this journey, for me, would be a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Dad liked to do my thinking for me. At The Hall he took me straight to the Babe Ruth exhibit. Ah! The Great Bambino! His bats, his uniform, his glove! It seemed to me that his flat leather mitten behind glass doors would be better suited for building snowmen in the yard next winter than for catching fly balls in deep center for The World Champion New York Yankees. Even I had a better mitt than that.
“It was a different era, son… a different era…”
It’s late afternoon now and we begin our search for lodging for that night. No reservations. Just drifting down the road. Watching for signs.
“Here’s one, Sam…”
“No… too close to the main road….”
We rumble on. Then it happens. Magic.
“Slow down Sam! Did you see that sign? Homemade cherry pies!”
Yeah, he saw it and the next thing you know, he’s churning up the dust with a high-speed U-turn across the 2-laner. We skid to a halt in front of a tiny country bakeshop and my door flies open. Just before reaching the entrance, my olfactory senses are overwhelmed; my steps quicken and I burst through the screen door.
“Oh, my God! What’s that smell?”
“That’s fresh baked bread, son; it’s coming out of the oven right now!”
My parents ordered three pies and a spoon. My sister was in heaven with her brownie. I got two loaves of French bread-one for the car, one for later.
A lifetime love affair began and in that moment I knew, at age 6, at a time when no one ever thought about health and food at the same time that the Wonderbread found on our table at home wasn’t for me. That love never faded and in my 30s, between careers in social work and journalism, I spent three years feeding the giant Hobart mixer and the BeCom rotating oven at Bachman’s Bakery on St. Thomas, perfecting my craft.
Nothing will send your holiday meals into the stratosphere like homemade bread. And it makes a wonderful bring-along gift for any jingle-bell (or any ) party you attend. Here are two of my favorites. If you’ve never baked bread before, try the simple, foolproof Flakey Biscuits recipe. Clocking in at 20-minutes from mixing bowl to table, time is no longer an excuse. For the experienced and adventuresome, try the French Bread recipe. It produces crusty loaves packed with Old World flavor. And when that magic aroma fills your kitchen, you may fall in love, too.
A few hints: Use only organic, unbleached, whole-grain flour, spring or filtered water, sea salt and organic olive oil. All ingredients should be room temperature. The exact amount of water and flour will vary from flour to flour and from day to day. The trick is to get the ‘feeling’ of a great dough in your fingers; then you can never go wrong. If baking biscuits, do them last, just before you are ready to serve. Yeasted bread requires a little planning. It can take about 3 hours, but most of that time you can focus on other things while your dough rises.
Have on hand: Measuring cups and spoons, large mixing bowl and spoon, baking sheets and parchment paper, a good work surface and love in your heart. That’s it! You don’t need a lot of ‘stuff’ to get started. Remember, folks were baking bread 5000 years before the iPod. Down the road you can accessorize your bread kitchen with dough scrapers, specialty pans and a pro-class mixer, which I suggest if you’re going to bake often. But if you cook at all, you already have what you need. Now get to it!
My favorite quick bread, often served for my brunch guests at Chef’s House.
1 ¾ cups organic whole wheat flour
¼ cup organic corn meal
½ cup extra light virgin olive oil
3 teaspoons baking powder (non aluminum)
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 large organic eggs (vegans: see below))
½ - ¾ cup organic whole milk (or scant ½ cup soy milk)
Pre heat oven to 450°.
Sift flour, corn meal, baking powder and salt together.
Mix in oil until flour sticks together in pea-sized clumps.
Beat eggs with ½ cup milk, reserving ¼ cup.
Mix thoroughly by hand, trying not to over beat. Add remaining milk, if needed, to make medium firm dough.
Drop by tablespoons onto greased (or parchment papered) baking sheet.
Bake @ 450° for about 10 minutes.
Vegans: you can replace the eggs! In blender, mix 2 Tablespoons flax seeds with 6 tablespoons of water until thick and creamy. This works in any baking recipe. For lighter biscuits, use 1-cup whole wheat and 1 cup unbleached white, no corn meal. Seeds, nuts or dried berries are fun additions. For rolled biscuits, use a little more flour. Roll ¾ inch thick and cut to shape.
HEARTY FRENCH BREAD
This staple on my table is simple, humble and perfect. This dough can be mixed by hand and will also work in a mixer with a dough hook. If using a machine, always do the final knead by hand because all dough needs a little love.
2 ½ cups warm (not hot!) water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1-teaspoon sea salt
1-tablespoon organic olive oil
4 cups organic whole wheat flour
1 ½ - 2 cups unbleached white, plus additional for kneading
2 tablespoons organic corn meal
optional for glaze:
1 egg white mixed with 1-tablespoon cold water.
In a large bowl dissolve yeast in water. A whisk really helps here. Cover for 5 -10 minutes, and rest in a warm, draft free place until the yeast ‘breaks.’ Add oil and salt. Mix thoroughly. Continue mixing while you add half of both flours. Now add the remaining whole wheat. The dough will begin to take form and the ball will pull away from the sides of the bowl. This is a good thing. Keep adding flour until you can’t stir in any more and turn the dough onto a floured board (or work surface) for kneading. This is the best part. Well, maybe eating is the best. But kneading is a close second. If you think you can’t learn to meditate, trying kneading bread dough. You too can be a guru!
The basic kneading move involves stretching, folding and turning the dough as you add more flour. You have added the right amount when the dough no longer sticks to the board. This is the key to great bread baking… getting that feeling in your fingers and in your soul.
When your feels dough perfect, add a few drops of olive oil on a large bowl (ceramic is great here) and add the dough, turning several time to coat with oil. Cover with a cloth and set to rise about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Flour your hand and punch it down all over. Cover and let rise 45 minutes. Turn onto board and knead until smooth and elastic. You should not require much flour here but you might. Cut the dough into thirds; form into balls and let rest 10-minutes on a floured board. Keep a cup of unbleached white nearby, sprinkling it around as needed to keep the dough form sticking, use as little as possible.
Preheat oven to 425°. Shape the dough into French loaves, freestanding round loaves or rolls and baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkled with corn meal. Cover with cloth and let rise 15 – 20 minutes.
Cut 2 or 3 diagonal slices, about ½ inch deep, on loaves (not rolls) and place in center of hot oven. For rolls, brush the tops with egg white mixture (vegans use soy milk or water) before they go in. They will bake in about 20 minutes. For loaves, bake 25-30 minutes, remove from oven, brush with egg mixture and return to oven for an additional 10 minutes.
The egg white gives the bread a crispy crust and an elegant shine. A more rustic, crunchier and vegan (!) approach is to brush the loaves 2 or 3 times with water during the baking process.
So there you have it. In another blog, I’ll explore the secrets of sourdough, perhaps the healthiest of all breads, because it does not create the spike in blood sugar that yeasted bread can. But if you’re in good general health, you should feel free enjoy these holiday treats without guilt. Now where was I?
“…three hundred and twenty eight… three hundred and twenty nine…”