For at least as long as the Salad Queen and I have been married, we’ve been working to create the perfect bread to grace our family table. Over the years, those loaves have morphed from long-fermented ones that always seem to flatten out on the bottom to high-rising smoky loaves from the woodfired oven that you want to grab to your nostrils and inhale deeply. Along the way, I’ve tried out different shapes, different ovens, different techniques and different ingredients. As with many things in life, it turns out that when it comes to good bread, simple is often the best.
What may surprise you (but won’t surprise a professional baker) is that the most important ingredient in making great bread is patience. After you’ve assemble the most honest of ingredients and kneaded adequately to bring them together, the best approach is to wait. The hydration process needs to happen; it can’t be rushed. And the yeast needs time to do its job.
So here’s the latest homespun bread we’re making at Chez Bullhog. The loaves aren’t always perfect, especially when dealing with a winter oven, but the flavor and the texture are wonderful. As my next door neighbor asked me the other day when I presented her a loaf, “Can it get any better?” She held the fresh bread to her nose and squeezed the crackling crust to release its heady aroma.
Just wait, I told her. I’ll come up with something.
Makes 3 loaves, about 25 ounces apiece
¾ cup (4 oz.) of rye flour
1¼ cups (6.5 oz.) of spelt flour
2 Tablespoons of flax seed meal
3 teaspoons of salt
2 teaspoons of dry yeast
1 liter (4¼ cups) water at 100°
5 cups (26 oz.) of all-purpose flour (see note)
2 cups additional flour for bench work
Flour Note: For best results, use good all-purpose flour with 4 grams of protein per ¼ cup. Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur’s and Trader Joe’s flours all work well for this bread. Avoid higher-gluten flours; at 5 grams of protein per ¼ cup, they will create stiff bread with great structure but will also have a tendency to form a brittle crumb.
Make a soft dough: In a large bread bowl, mix together rye, spelt, flax seed salt and yeast with the handle of a wooden spoon. Add water and mix to make a smooth porridge. Add 5 cups of all-purpose flour to the bowl. Vigorously incorporate the flour, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary, until you’ve created a smooth dough. Let the dough sit for 15 minutes in the bowl before proceeding.
Knead the dough: Sprinkle 2 cups of flour onto a work surface. Scrape the dough from the bowl onto the middle of this and, using a dough scraper or plastic container lid cut in half, pull the edges of the dough up to fold into the center as you would an envelope. Knead lightly for 7 to10 minutes, using only as much additional flour as necessary to keep from bogging down your fingers. The goal here is a soft smooth dough with a springy texture.
First rise: Clean the bowl and put the dough back into it (no oil or butter needed). Cover lightly and let rise for 2 hours in a warm (75-80°) place.
Advanced option: In this first rise, you can improve the texture of your finished loaves by a) lowering the temperature to 60° or b) decreasing the yeast by half. The time taken for the dough to rise will be 4 or 5 hours in either case. For a true artisan technique, do both and then allow the bread to proof overnight. Punch down the dough and let it sit at 75-80° for an hour before continuing.
Second rise: Once the dough has become puffy and fills the bowl, use the dough scraper to bring the edges into the center to release the air, inverting the dough if possible. Cover and let rise another 1½ – 2 hours.
Form the loaves: Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Tuck the edges under lightly to make mounded balls, and place onto floured cloth napkins in bread baskets. Let rise 45 minutes to an hour.
Preheat the oven: Set quarry tiles or a pizza stone onto the middle rack of your indoor oven and preheat to 450°. Or – if you’re lucky enough to have a woodfired oven – get your outdoor oven moderately hot over a 2-hour period.;.
For baking in a conventional oven: Turn the risen loaves out of their baskets and onto floured peels. Slash or decorate your loaves if desired. Slip them directly onto the quarry tiles or pizza stone. Lower the heat to 425° and lower it again to 375° after the first 15 minutes to replicate the falling heat of a woodfired oven. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until loaves are medium brown and crusty.
For baking in a woodfired oven: Your oven should be well heated but not scorching. (If the ash on the walls of your oven has turned white, it’s too hot; wait 30 minutes) Sweep the floor clean of ashes and push the coals to the back. Slip the loaves into the oven about 12” from the coals in a semi-circle. Turn the loaves around after 20 minutes; ¼ turn after another 20 minutes; and all the way around again after another 10 minutes. Loaves will be done after 1 hour altogether.
Cool the loaves on a rack for 30 minutes before digging in.
Now gather ‘round the table and enjoy the oohs and aahs as your friends and family remark on your ability to create a fantastic bread. But be forewarned: even basking in the glow of their kudos, you’ll be assessing your next creation. I know; I’ve been there for a long long time!
Copyright ©2012 by Don Hogeland