Another special bread, to me and countless others, has been my mother-in-law’s (Susie’s) homemade loaf bread. The first time I ever came to her house, I was in high school and visiting the Asheville area. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was my friend and I went to see her. Elizabeth invited me into the kitchen, cut off a large slice off a fresh loaf of bread and spread it thickly with raspberry jam from a large pot sitting on the stove, before we headed out for a tour of their farm. I was very impressed that there were four loaves of this home made bread on the counter (and impressed about all that jam!). Elizabeth said her mother made 6 loaves of bread every other day – to feed, I found out soon, 5 of her own children, 2 high school exchange students, many of the 10+ cousins who came through the house, plus all their friends, and her husband. This amount of bread – delicious, fresh, homemade bread at that – was almost magical. And, as I came to know Susie and her bread, I never really changed my mind about it – there was definitely some magic.
Elizabeth and I tried to reproduce her bread when we were in college (even attempting to sell loaves to other home-deprived students). But, ultimately, our bread lacked something. Elizabeth would make new suggestions about how to make the bread, based on many observations and conversations with her mother about bread baking. We finally gave up trying to make Susie’s bread – it just never turned out quite right – edible, yes, but not like hers. We decided there really must be some magic in Susie’s kitchen that made her bread come out so well (and so much better than ours using the same recipe). Was it the oven? Her large, blackened, finicky thing filled with random objects from egg shells to pottery to cookies and bread? Was it the general fermentation happening in her kitchen at all times? All those fermenting (some might call it rotting) jars of jam, pickles, leftovers, and who knows what else, scattered over nearly every surface of the kitchen. Was it her bread pans? Old, blackened, thick – that she never washed, ever. Was it the flour? She claimed she thought it was important to use some pastry flour, but I’ve seen her use any kind of flour on hand and turn out great bread. Susie was a conjurer – churning out great loaves of some of the best loaves of bread. However she did it, her bread never lasted long at her house. Which was good, because those homemade loaves did go stale more quickly than any store bought, less tasty, less textured bread.
Now, I incorporate some of all these bread traditions and some of my own into my cooking. I make biscuits and cornbread. I knead dough and form loaves. I’ve now also made the no-knead bread – which is wonderful and easy but requires planning and time (and I tend to fall short on both). I also enjoy making tortillas – corn and flour, and occasionally make batch of one or the other to keep the family fed with burritos, quesadillas, and tacos. Even though we have no Latin roots, the influence is definitely felt and influence has become important (the food is so delicious!). Will that get passed on to the next generations’ bread traditions?
Anyway, below is a simple recipe for the most basic bread I make a few times a month – a yeast-risen loaf bread. Do you have any bread traditions or culture in your family?
Simple loaf bread (makes 2)
Mix 1 cup oats with 1 cup hot milk or water. Let sit for 10 minutes
Add 1 Tablespoon (or 1 package of yeast) and 1 1/2 cups more of water or milk. Mix and let yeast dissolve.
Add 1/4 cup honey or molasses (or brown sugar) and 3 cups of whole wheat flour. Mix with a spoon for about a minute. Let sit for about 30 minutes.
Then, add 1 T salt, 1/4 cup oil or melted butter (and an egg if you want). Mix in well, then start adding white bread flour until the dough is too hard to mix with a spoon (about 2 more cups).
Turn dough out on counter and start to knead, adding flour as needed. Knead for 5-10 minutes and shape into a ball. Put the ball back into your original bowl after you sprinkle flour in the bowl to keep it from sticking. Put a damp towel over the bread while it rises.
When it has doubled in size, take it out and cut in half and shape each half into a football shape. Put each shape into greased (or buttered) loaf pans. Let rise again, with a damp towel over the loaves. After about 30-45 minutes you can bake the loaves (when they’ve doubled in size again). I like to slice the tops a little with a serrated knife just before baking. I bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. There are a lot ideas about how to know when your bread is done. I tap the loaves on the bottom to see if they sound hollow, but I also bake until they are golden or browned on the outside. Susie says she can tell when they are done when she put a loaf to the tip of her nose and it does not burn.
Let cool out of the pan.
We eat lots of toast and sandwiches, so this bread does not last long. I’m lucky if it lasts a week, but usually, it’s just a few days.