You know I have gone completely nuts making my own bread. A reward in itself – you get a loaf of bread! Get out!
Although I have a loaf that is kind of a disappointment now and then, I almost always declare, “Oh Crikey, this is the best loaf of bread I ever made.” And that is probably correct, because as I learn more stuff every loaf just gets better.
The best bread I ever had was Chico Bread – remember that place? As usual, the guy had a good thing, and it got so good, it wore him out. I like Miller and Tin Roof bread, but they are too expensive. I decided, if I could make a good loaf of bread consistently, and if I could make it a natural part of my routine, it would be worth it.
First I had to learn how to make it. I read books and books, tried various recipes. I got a recipe out of a grocery store magazine that was good enough, and I’d been making that for a couple of years, but it just wasn’t good enough to use for every day bread, more of a break from store bought bread.
I finally dug out this old Sunset magazine I’d saved – found it in the “FREE” box at a laundromat. It was from 1984, when getting back to basics was still all the rage, wood stoves and country cabins, Wilderness Family yadda yadda. God did people not even see what was coming, it’s almost frightening looking back.
Sunset does articles on bread making on a regular basis, brings in a panel of bakers and scientists and updates their methods. This piece was about sourdough. They described all the stuff they’d tried – even comparing containers made of plastic, glass and metal – and made a handy synopsis of what had worked. I learned how to make my own starter, keep it in an old yogurt container in the fridge, and “feed it” with flour and warm milk each time I took some out. I got myself into a schedule of setting out the “sponge” (a portion of starter, warm water and flour) the night before I intended to make the bread, and then get it going right away in the morning. That’s really important now, I don’t want to be baking bread in the middle of the afternoon in June.
My family liked it better with the first loaf, noticed there is more flavor, and a rubbery texture to the crust. The bread inside was full of bubbles, like Chico Bread.
But, I kept experimenting, especially with flour, trying to incorporate more whole wheat into it. That went alright at first, but started to make the bread too heavy, so I backed off. Then I noticed, the latest 5 lb bag of whole wheat flour I’d bought at the store was rancid. Yeah, flour goes bad. It’s hard finding whole wheat flour in town, at all, and yeah, who knows how long it’s sat, where. The bin does not appeal to me, I don’t like buying anything out of bulk bins anymore, I could write a book on why. So, I started looking into buying a grinder and making my own flour.
I bet none of you knew this – I am a big fan of western romance novelist Louis L’amour. My favorite is “Connagher” (“You’re a hard man Connagher…It’s a hard country, Kid...”), but I also like “Lando.” Lando is a boy who has lived as an orphan on the land his parents homesteaded, growing his own wheat and milling it with a little hand-crank grinder. He lives on bread from his wheat field and meat and greens from the forest.
I always thought fresh flour would be better, so when I got a Amazon.com gift certificate for my birthday, I looked into various models, and here’s the one I chose – about $50 from Victorio, a company I’ve bought other good stuff from in past.
The electric ones were over $200. I’ve been buying a lot of hand-crank devices lately, I’m going to buff up for sure. This little baby is a work-out, and I’ll admit, I grind just enough for my “sponge” and to replace the starter used, and I’m pooped. I realized, I don’t use my upper body that much, this could be a good thing.
And yeah, the bread’s waaaay better, especially the taste. It’s different every time, almost never looks “traditional,” but it sure as heck disappears down to the heel, which might get popped into somebody’s mouth, or cut into little chunks, drizzled with butter and garlic salt, and baked to a crunchy crisp on a cookie sheet.
I have to tell my family, I don’t want to make bread every day, so they can’t just fall on a fresh loaf and vaporize it, they have to make it last into the next day. I start a sponge every other night, and make the bread the next morning. It hasn’t been hard to work it into my schedule – this morning Badges had an appointment for shots at 9am, so I kneaded the bread before we left and set the dough to rise while we were out. I got back just in time to get it ready for the oven, and by 11:30 we had a loaf of fresh bread, and the oven is OFF.
Besides Sunset magazine, I’ve got good tips from a couple of baking shows on PBS – America’s Test Kitchen, and New Scandanavian Cooking. One thing I learned was, the dough needs to be sticky and wet, no matter how messy that gets. Today I had a little wrestling match getting the loaf in, it kept sticking to my hands, so it stretched and looked a little weird.
But it doesn’t seem to matter how they go in, they taste great. The fresh flour gives it a richer flavor, for sure.
Next I need to find a cheaper, more convenient source of wheat berries. I’ll keep you posted.