Nothing says, “baking time” like the smell of over-ripe milk!
Ask P, (much to his disappointment) I almost never make a recipe twice – even if it’s amazing. Every trip to the kitchen is an experiment. I have different ingredients on hand and different inspiration. But this recipe is special. I usually improvise a little bit, but I basically follow it everytime. It is, by far and away, the recipe I’ve made the most. It’s our bread recipe and it supplies nearly all of the bread we consume.
People like different things from their bread, squishy, crunchy, full of spices, fancy, boring. We like a workhorse. It makes great sandwiches, amazing toast, it freezes like a dream, it stays soft for up to a week, the recipe makes three loaves, has a nice baking schedule, and it’s mostly whole grains. The ingredients are simple, we always have them on hand, and it uses the milk that would otherwise go down the drain. Did I mention it’s delicious? Perfecto!
This recipe is loosely adapted from “Robin’s Bread” in “HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition From Around the World.” If you’re a baker, or a want-to be baker you MUST own this book. It is, hands down, my favorite cookbook ever. Every recipe I’ve made from this book has come out well. It also has wonderful travelogue and beautiful pictures.
6 Cups liquid*
1 t dry, active yeast
8 C whole wheat flour**
5 (or so) C all purpose white flour
2 T molasses (or a few glugs from the molasses bottle)
2 scant T salt
2-3 T canola oil (or a veggie oil. Don’t skimp, it helps the bread stay fresh)
1 egg, beaten
Sesame seeds (for sprinkling)
Mix your water and milk in a large bowl (about 8 quarts). I use a metal bowl and then heat the liquid (in the bowl) on the stove until slightly warm to the touch.
Whisk in 3 C whole wheat flour. Whisk in yeast. Whisk in molasses. Whisk in 3 more C whole wheat flour. Whisk in salt. Whisk in oil. Whisk in the rest of the whole wheat flour.
At this point, you’ll probably have to start stirring. Get a strong wooden spoon and start mixing in the all purpose flour 1-2 C at a time. When it gets too thick to stir, start kneading. I usually knead it directly in the bowl, adding flour as needed. You can knead on the counter (bigger mess) but you’ll need a bench scraper since the dough is soft.
Keep kneading and adding flour until the dough is smooth, cohesive, and forms a ball, but is still soft. You don’t want it to get super stiff. Don’t be neurotic, just knead until you get tired or run out of time. It will be fine. (you may not use all the all purpose flour)
Some people wash their bowls or coat them with oil or do other picky things. I do not. I just let it sit in the same bowl and cover with a cutting board, plate , or plastic wrap. Let ferment for 8-12 hours.
Don’t punch down the dough. It’s fun and satisfying, but it doesn’t make a great loaf of bread. Instead flour your hands and gently scrape down the sides of the bowl, reflouring your hands as needed, to create a nice ball. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat into a rectangle and cut into three equal pieces. Gently roll each piece into a ball and let rest. Butter three bread pans (generously. You don’t want to ruin your beautiful loaves when you pry them from the pans.)
Pat a piece into a rectangle about 10 inches long and, maybe 7 inches wide. This is not an exact science. Roll the dough up from a narrow end and close the seam. Place into the bread pan. Repeat for remaining balls.
Cover with a tea towel for 40 minutes. Preheat your oven to 400F. Put a cast iron pan (we use a aluminum brownie pan that we were going to throw out) in the bottom of the oven as it preheats.
Slash the loaves if you’re into that sort of thing. Brush the tops with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Don’t skip the brushing and sprinkling! I skipped it for a long time until I realized the nice crust and extra crunch made the difference between good bread and amazing bread.
Place your loaves in the oven, pour two or so cups of warm water into the pan on the floor of the oven and close the door quickly. Bake 10 minutes. Turn down the heat to 375F and bake 20 more minutes. Then rotate the pans 180 degrees and bake another 20 minutes. If crusts look done and the loaf sounds hollow when you thump the bottom, you’re in business. Let cool 10 minutes, turn out of pans and let cool completely on a wire rack. If desired, put a loaf or two in a ziplock bag in the freezer for up to six months.
*a mix of water and milk. Use at least two cups milk, and balance out the rest with water. Milk that is ripe is fine, rotten milk is not. Whole milk will give you a softer bread.
**We use fresh ground (yay for a flour grinder) hard winter wheat. I’ve found fresh ground makes a softer, less dense whole grain loaf. You may have to experiment with proportions depending on your wheat source.