I still remember the first time I attempted bread. Ambitious and with a misplaced sense of courage I set about to make both an Irish soda bread and a simple French bread. The soda bread was rock hard, impossible to chew and it took determined might to separate that ball into two. The crumb was dry, even though fresh out of the oven and the taste once you gnawed for a long enough period of time was unremarkable.
It is this type of experience that turns people away from baking bread. I believe that there are certain rules in baking that you simply cannot break and once you learn those you are fine. Until that point, however, it is entirely different. It is truly unfortunate that most of the rhetoric surrounding the difficulty of homemade food plays up on the basic principles of baking and their seeming difficulty. I don’t profess to know everything about baking or cooking, in fact I make plenty of mistakes but it is seeing past those mistakes to create a thing of beauty is what working with food is really all about. I do believe that the talk around food is prohibitive. Think of the McDonald’s commercial in the 1980s, a small family is going to visit Grandma and what the woman doesn’t know is that the family is already plotting their post-Grandma trip to McDs to make up for the meal they just shared. Or, the current spate of frozen potato products because, “chopping potatoes doesn’t have to be difficult” commercial.
I am always mildly flabbergasted that this is such an issue. That the preparation of food is a soul-sucking enterprise, one you only engage in because your family needs nourishment to get through the rest of their day. I understand that much of my dismay derives from the fact I do in fact know how to cook and it is a pleasure for me; I cannot imagine spending time in the kitchen could as a chore. More often than not there are pudgy little child hands in whatever it is I am cooking and now at five, Miss N has taken it upon herself to wash and chop some of the more tender fruits and vegetables.
This is the kitchen for me. The legacy I am providing my children, the respect for the farmers who feed us and the knowledge that food does so much more than keep your vitals going. This is where my love for baking bread comes from, in so many ways it encapsulates the pleasure of baking home, it’s seeming simplicity.
Yeast is one of the most difficult baking ingredients you can work with; it is a finicky and sassy bitch who can turn on you in a second as soon as her bath is too hot (or cold). There is one, and only one secret you need to remember when dealing with yeast: Maintain a tepid, tipping slightly into warm temperature on everything. That’s it. The official temperature is 100º Fahrenheit but I have always gone by touch.
My use of marmite is inspired wholly by Denise of Bread Expectations and her recipe for Marmite and Black Pepper Boule. Marmite is a pungent yeast extract mixed with dried veggies and spices. It is commonly used as a spread but Denise’s use of it in the bread gives the bread a beautiful complexity of flavour. I ran out of marmite after only getting half of a teaspoon but it is still enough to compliment all the darker flavours of molasses. I’ve rediscovered my love for cinnamon peach jam, one of the many jam endeavours I had this summer. The jam is only slightly sweet and it neatly wraps the warm flavour together for a feeling that makes you feel spoiled.
The Bread – Molasses Whole Wheat
Inspired by both Denise and the Oatmeal Brown Bread, page 18 of the Laura Secord Canadian Cookbook.
one teaspoon demera sugar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of marmite (feel free to add more, this was not an intended restriction)
1/2 cup lukewarm water (100º)
one tablespoon active dry yeast (that’s one packet.)
1/4 cup fancy molasses
1 1/2 to 2 cups lukewarm water
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup ground flax seeds
2 to 3 cups all purpose flour
pinch of salt
This recipe can easily made by hand or with a standing electric mixture that has been fitted with the dough hook. I prefer to do combination of both because I tend to “baby” it as if it were the most precious thing on earth.
1. In a large bowl dissolve the demera sugar and marmite into the 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. Stir a bit to get the last few stubborn chunks of sugar.
2. Over top of the mix, sprinkle the yeast and allow to bloom for the next 10 minutes.
3. Break up the mix with a fork and add the molasses.
4. Turn on the machine to “mix”, it should be spinning very slowly. Add one cup of the whole wheat flour and allow it to gum up a bit. At this point, start adding the rest of the whole wheat flour in 1/2 cup increments.
5. It will look dry – to compensate, drizzle some of the reserved water into the dough and continue mixing to incorporate. Add the flax seeds and any last bit of flour to keep it from mixing then turn the mixer up to “knead” for 2 minutes and remove from bowl. Knead by hand until elastic and form into a bowl.
If using the stand mixer to knead, just keep an eye on it until it is elastic and pulled away from the sides of the bowl and into the shape of a ball.
6. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and turn to cover in a thin layer of oil. Leave for 1 and 1/2 hours or until it is doubled in size.
7. Turn out onto a lightly floured service and cut the dough into two equal portions. Form into a ball make sure it is covered in a dusting of flour to prevent it from burning in the oven. Place on a baking sheet and allow to rise. This step should take about 45 to one hour. I like to keep mine in the oven so it is insulate while it rises, this adds to an important element next.
8. Once the boules have doubled in size, heat the oven to 375º F with the bread in the oven. Place a small bowl filled with water in on the bottom rack of the oven, the bread will be baking on the middle rack. Bake for 45 minutes.