Sunday, March 05, 2006

Daily Bread

I think I have loved making bread ever since I kneaded and shaped my first loaf. The Chef Mother might have a different story to tell, but that's how I remember it.

There is almost nothing that compares to mixing basic ingredients into something that feels so soft and tender when you knead it, smells so earthy and vibrant as it rises and bakes, and tastes so wholesome and satisfying when fresh and warm.

I love to cook, there's no denying it. But to bake bread -- ah, now that encompasses both love and passion, magic and mystery, partaking in creation and communion with the world. It's sublime.

So you might guess that among my cookbooks, my well-worn and honored bread books have been chosen for their authors' deep appreciation for and simple joy in the wonderful complexities of bread-baking as well as for the marvelous variety of recipes. And of those bread books, one stands out above the rest: The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown.

When I first encountered it at a nearby bookstore about a decade ago, the unassuming cover of the then-25-year-old book might have escaped my notice except that the name "Tassajara" jumped out at me. A quick skim of the pages piqued my interest: loose "formulas" for bread variations based on a few standard techniques, simple but clear illustrations, and a thoughtfully light-hearted spirit running through the book, inspiring a heightened awareness of good ingredients and the process of converting them into "the staff of life."

Bread makes itself, by your kindness, with your help, with imagination streaming through you, with dough under hand, you are breadmaking itself, which is why breadmaking is so fulfilling and rewarding (p. vi).

The Zen of breadmaking, the breadmaking of Zen. And why not? Bread calls for our devoted attention, our profound gratitude, and offers us the whole world in return.

Several of the Tassajara recipes are among my favorites: the basic wheat bread, the never-fail French bread, the oatmeal bread, and the blissfully sweet and spicy cinnamon rolls and pecan rolls. But this morning I turned to one of the more unusual but equally tasty recipes: cornmeal-millet bread.

At last, I had the chance to use both the locally-produced whole wheat flour and cornmeal together with local honey and organic millet. And just to liven things up a little, I added some ground organic flax seeds for extra flavor, color, and nutritional goodness. After all, Brown himself notes:

Recipes do not belong to anyone -- given to me, I give them to you. Recipes are only a guide, a skeletal framework, to be fleshed out according to your nature and desire. Your life, your love, will bring these recipes into full creation (p. vi).

So I tweaked and I mixed, ending up with a dense and slightly dry loaf packed with whole grain wholesomeness and crunchy, nutty flavor. The first couple of slices, still steaming and slathered with local butter so rich it almost tasted like a mild cheese, proved that with the right inspiration and love for the creation, a basic recipe can turn into something divine.

Brown tells us, "I do not bake to be great. I bake because it is wholesome. I feel renewed, and I am renewing the world, my friends and neighbors" (p.4).

Maybe you can't live by bread alone. But when you bake bread with this attitude of love and attentiveness, that bread becomes more nourishing than mere food.

Go make some bread. Share it with someone you love. Do it today.

You'll see.

Cornmeal-Millet-Flax Bread

Based on the cornmeal-millet bread recipe in The Tassajara Bread Book, this recipe makes only one loaf that is denser and even more crunchy than the original. It's substantial, it's real, it's gooood.

1 1/2 c lukewarm water
1 T active dry yeast
2 T honey
2 c whole wheat flour (or 1 c whole wheat and 1 c unbleached)
2 tsp salt
2 T canola oil
1 c cornmeal
1/2 c whole millet
1/2 c ground millet
1/2 c ground flax seeds
1/2 to 1 c more whole wheat flour

Combine water and yeast in large mixing bowl and allow yeast to bloom. Add honey and 2 c whole wheat flour, stir until well combined, and allow sponge to rise for 45 minutes.

Sprinkle salt around the edge of the batter, drizzle oil right behind it, and fold salt and oil into the batter. Add cornmeal, millet, and flax seeds, stirring until combined. Work in enough whole wheat flour to make the dough firm enough for kneading. Turn dough out onto flour-covered board and knead for up to 10 minutes, until dough is (comparatively) smooth and springs back only slightly under your touch. Cover with a clean towel and allow to rise for 1 hour. (It won't rise much, but have faith!) Press air out of dough and allow to rise for another 45 minutes to an hour.

Press air out again and shape the dough into either a standard loaf (to go in a greased loaf pan), a freeform loaf or a boule (to go on a cornmeal-dusted cookie sheet or baking stone). Preheat oven to 350 F and allow loaf to rise another 20 to 30 minutes.

Bake loaf at 350 F for 1 hour, until it sounds nearly hollow when tapped. Cool on wire rack.

Makes one substantial loaf worth sharing with good friends.... eat and partake in the joy of creation!


At 1/25/2009 1:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thist is the best way to make bread, bar none! Little was left out with the above directions, but it's more likely you will need to up the numbers using 4 to 6 cups of water to make Five or Six loaves.

Tassajara is 'whole food,' and you will notice your entire family life can improve around partaking in a regular helping of this bread. Especially right out of the oven.

To make it more moist, to make it lighter, {to make it rise fully in the case of high-altitude,} it's a miracle waiting to happen in your fingertips, so guys, tell the little lady to step aside and treat her to the food that y'all really knead.

"Never add more unique ingredients than 3." -This became a hard-n-fast rule my third year into this. I had screwed up, like everybody knows you don't need sunflower seeds and six other sumptous flavors to accent it. It ain't thak kind of dish.

Perfectly done, your loaves will rise the remainder of their way after baking for 15-20 minutes. In the mountains, like Colorado, this is tough, and they will 'fall' at this final rising stage if you don't observe a couple of rules.

Always try to create a lot of moist air (steam) in the work area. Add more, like 2- 2/12 T. powdered yeast for 6 cups water. until you get the kneading part just right. (It tastes best with less, as the fermentation with the light molasses is the secret to the whole deal.)

Butter it with soft, unsweetened butter and serve with anything from a Stew, Fricasee, Tomato soup, Crab cakes, brown rice, etc.


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