Thursday, February 07, 2013

Alma's Multigrain Bread

I was 10 when my mother learned to bake bread.

An elderly church member in rural Minnesota would tuck honey-scented loaves of bread into churchgoers' cars on her way home after the service. The lovely scent of fresh, warm bread filled the car before you got inside and was the very best kind of welcome.

We were blessed with bread at least three times before my mom thought, or worked up the courage, to ask, and Alma leaped at the chance to teach our family how to bake bread. Several lovely afternoons were spent in Alma's farm kitchen, with my mom and sister and I learning to knead bread dough, how the right consistency feels and the hollow sound a properly baked loaf makes when tapped.

And the best part: Alma taught us how perfect bread tastes straight from the oven, still steaming hot, when you impatiently slice into it and slather it with churned butter and fresh raspberry jam. The very best way to pass a rainy summer afternoon. And I happily spent several that way.

Alma graciously supervised the first at-home baking, loaning us several of her family recipes. After Mom managed the first brown loaves on her own, Alma passed along a handful of bread pans. We've used these vintage tins ever since. At about 3" by 7", they were the perfect size for our family of five. We used one entire loaf of bread whenever we made sandwiches or toast. So Mom could freeze and thaw bread meal by meal.

Up until Mom went back to work full time, somewhere in my high school days, we made our own bread every week in batches four to eight loaves at a time. (I'm using "we" very generously as Mom did most, if not all, of the actual work. We kids were easily bored after the initial ingredient measuring or one round of dough punching.)

This is how I learned what bread actually tastes like, bread made with honest, real ingredients — something it's not easy to know in these days of the pillow soft supermarket loaves. Of course this is something I plan to pass along to my kids. Even if unwrapping their imperfectly-shaped sandwiches on homemade bread in the school cafeteria makes them as uncomfortable as it made me a thousand years ago. But a house slowly filling with the scent of baking bread, just a little bit of honey and the magic of kneaded wheat, now that's the thing to win them back every time.

Alma's Multigrain Bread

Makes 2 small loaves

In a medium bowl, mix:

2 pkgs yeast (or 4 1/2 tsp)
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup warm water

Mix together and set aside for five minutes, or while gathering the other ingredients, until the yeast is dissolved and foamy. To a large mixing bowl, add the dry ingredients and stir to combine:

3 cups white flour (+ more for kneading)
1 cup oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup corn meal
2 tsp salt

When your yeast is foamy, add:

1 1/2 cups warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil (anything neutral-tasting works here)

Mix wet ingredients together and pour over dry. Stir to make a shaggy dough, then turn out of the bowl onto a floured countertop and knead until smooth and elastic, at least five minutes by the clock. Wipe out the bowl and oil it lightly. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it once so the entire surface is lightly coated with oil. Let it rise in a slightly warm spot for an hour (if it rises much faster, your spot is too warm). When it's doubled in size, punch it down, breaking any big air pockets. Let it rise a second time until doubled, about 30-45 minutes. Punch down the bubbles and shape into loaves. Put into 2 small, buttered pans, those vintage bread pans, about 3" x 7", or one large loaf. Preheat your oven to 350º while the loaves rise a third time. Only about 20-30 minutes, until they're doubled in size, bubbled over the tops of the pans.

Bake at 350º for 30-35 minutes, until the loaf is browned and it sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped. I'm not sure what the time difference is if you make one large loaf, but I'd guess at least 10 minutes. I actually use bread pans from Alma herself, so I've never tried.

Let the bread cool entirely before slicing.

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