It seems that an enormous number of Americans have hit on the same idea for coping with the Big Lockdown: they're learning how to bake bread. Chef Jerry Pellegrino, an experienced baker, knows this is a very worthwhile activity in so many ways.
Baking bread is a fundamental part of being human; we started doing it literally thousands of years ago. The basic concept hasn't changed much. All you need is flour, yeast, salt and water...and a hot oven. But like so many things that seem to be simple, there's a lot of technique involved that takes a while to master.
I was lucky enough to have a five pound bag of whole wheat flour on hand as well as a good bit of all-purpose flour. I bought some yeast, watched a YouTube tutorial and took a crack at it. And it was sort of OK, but not exactly what I was expecting.
Seven loaves later, I was doing better, but there were a lot of mysteries that I was dealing with. So I called up Jerry and he was kind enough to send me a recipe for whole wheat bread.
And it worked very well! Let's take this line by line and see what we can learn. Because every loaf is a lesson.
1. You need to work with warm, not hot, water. Some people like to put a little of the water in a cup, and add the yeast...usually 1 packet or 3/4 of a tablespoon, plus a pinch of sugar. In 10 minutes you will have "proofed" the yeast, which will be bubbling. But according to Jerry, today's yeast is so dependable that you can combine all your ingredients all at once.
To make good whole wheat bread you need whole wheat flour, and some all-purpose flour as well. Whole wheat flour doesn't generate much in the way of gluten, but the white flour certainly does. Without gluten a loaf will not rise well nor develop good texture.
All yeast needs some sort of sugar to eat, and Jerry loves to use honey. But be careful: too much sugar or too much salt can inhibit the yeast.
Once your ingredients are in the bowl, you either use a stand mixer and dough hook to mix it, or you do it by hand.
Next you put a towel over the bowl, and put the bowl in a warm place and just walk away for two hours. And this is where the magic of yeast takes over. The dough will double in size.
Next comes the kneading, which I think is the trickiest part. The dough, which at this point is called "the sponge," can be very, very sticky. So you add a little flour to absorb moisture, and then a little more and a little more, as needed. Eventually the dough becomes easy to handle. You turn it out on a flat floured surface and work it over for about 15-20 minutes. The more, the better.
If you want to add seeds or grains to the dough, this is the time to do it. I used raw oatmeal and cooked barley. Continue to knead until the seeds are uniformly distributed.
At this point Jerry says you form a loaf with the dough and put it in your well greased bread pan. Cover it and give it another hour to rise.
After that, it's into the oven. Jerry recommends a hot 450° oven for abut 25 minutes. And that's it!
We want to share Jerry's recipe and encourage folks to try it at home.
Whole Grain Bread
1 ½ cups warm water
¾ Tablespoon dry yeast or 1 packet
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon salt
1 Tablespoon flax seed
2 cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
1 ¾ cups AP Flour
1 cup Stone Cut Irish Oatmeal
2 Tablespoons toasted sunflower seeds
2 Tablespoons toasted Pine nuts
Combine all of the ingredients except the sunflower seeds and pine nuts in the bowl of a stand mixer fit with the dough hook and mix starts to form. Knead the dough in the machine for an additional ten minutes adding additional flour to keep the dough from sticking to the sides of the bowl if needed.
Lift the dough out and lightly grease the bowl with nonstick spray or olive oil. Cover and let rise for 2 hours at room temperature or until double in size.
Punch down the dough and transfer to a floured work surface. Knead the sunflower seeds and pine nuts into the dough until evenly distributed.
Form into a loaf-like shape and place in a greased loaf pan. Sift a light coating of flour over the top to help keep the dough moist. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 45-60 minutes.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Using a sharp knife, make a ¼ inch split, lengthwise through the risen bread and bake in the oven for approximately 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the bread from the oven and immediately remove from pan. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.