I remember my father driving, more than a little recklessly, down a country road. Fields of brown cornstalks shot past us, low green hedges, bright red barns that whizzed by in a blur. We four kids sat wide-eyed with the windows open, letting the country wind whip our hair, as my father gripped the wheel grinning. I imagined him as a kid just then, fresh from high school and taking his ’32 Ford for a ride on the country lanes. Except that he was driving the family station wagon, and his wife and kids were starving.
There was a little bit of magic around the next bend. An Amish buggy, opened at the back, was tucked into a tangle of brambles and weeds. A sign by its wooden wheel read: Bread $1.
A tall man wearing black trousers with suspenders and a blousy white shirt greeted us solemnly as we scrambled out of the car. His long face was held up by a gray beard that smothered the space where his neck should be. He adjusted his straw hat as he looked at the sky. His horse stood by placidly, nuzzling a burlap bag.
“Last two loaves,” the man said. “You can have them for a dollar fifty. Best bread around,” he added, and he didn’t say anything more. He reached into the dark recesses of the wooden wagon and held out two mushroom-topped loaves of bread for our inspection. Did I mention that my father loves a good deal?
All these years later, I don’t remember much about the man, his horse or his buggy, except that his world seemed so unlike my own. But I do remember his bread. Fresh and flavorful, with a hint of butter and a background of yeastiness. It was plain, honest bread just like the Amish who baked it. We tore it off in hunks and ate it dry, spilling crumbs recklessly on the back seat of that station wagon.
Now to get some of that bread you could take a drive out along the country roads that stretch from Lancaster east to Philadelphia – my father’s old stomping grounds – and hope to stumble upon an Amish family who has been baking bread that morning. Or you can bake this bread in the comfort of your own home, using honest ingredients and a little bit of patience. Either way, it’s good sometimes to be reminded: the simple things in life are often the best!
Makes two 22-ounce loaves
1 ¼ cups of milk, scalded and cooled
3 Tablespoons of butter
¾ cup of water at 105°
2 ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast
3 Tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
4 ½ cups of unbleached bread flour (See note)
+ ½ cup of flour for benchwork and 1 Tablespoon of butter for the bread molds
A note on flour types: To achieve a high rise with a strong crumb, this bread is best baked with flour that has at least 11% protein content. Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur’s, Pendleton Morbread or any flour that’s labeled ‘best for bread’ are all great here. If you’re not sure, check the nutritional content; any unbleached white flour that has 4 grams of protein per quarter cup will do.
Scald the milk: In a 1 quart saucepan heat 1¼ cups of milk over medium heat for 4 minutes. Once the milk is hot and steaming, remove it from the heat and add 3 Tablespoons of butter cut into three or four pieces. For best results, do not let the milk boil.
Make the dough: In a large bread bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, mix together 2 ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast (1 packet) and ¾ cups water at 105°. Whisk until frothy and let sit for a few minutes while the milk and butter mixture cools.
Add 2 cups of the flour, the sugar, salt and cooled milk mixture to the bowl and beat until smooth. With a stand mixer, this will take 2 minutes with the flat beater. By hand, it will mean 200 strokes with the handle of a wooden spoon.
Now gradually add 2½ cups more of flour, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the dough is a smooth mass. If using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on low speed for 2 minutes once the dough has formed a ball.
Kneading and first rise: Turn the dough ball out onto a lightly floured counter and knead vigorously for 5 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.
Second rise: Punch down the dough, pull the edges over as best you can to form a ball and let rise a second time for an hour.
Shape the loaves: Butter two loaf pans on the sides and bottoms. Turn the partly risen dough out onto the counter again, and lightly push the air out of the dough. Divide into two pieces. Roll each piece into the approximate shape of a loaf and let sit for 10 minutes. Now roll each piece lengthwise, again into the shape of a loaf, carefully stretching the dough. This will give the bread its high-rising structure.
Spray the loaves with a light mist of water and let them rise for 50 minutes to an hour in a warm place until their heads are popping out of the loaf pans.
Bake the loaves: Preheat oven to 400°. Bake loaves for 10 minutes, and then lower the oven temperature to 350°. Bake for a further 40 minutes until brown. Put a small piece of tin foil on top of each loaf if the top gets too dark.
Let cool on racks for 30 minutes before digging in. Enjoy!