Loafing in a cold climate

Winter weather has provided us with a never-ending topic of conversation lately: the storms pummeling the upper Midwest, the guesses as to how much those storms might repeat themselves here in northern Ohio, how to arrange our travels in the face of weather advisories, and, eventually, how much snow we ended up shoveling off our walks.

Between the snow, the ice, the cold, and the wind chills, it’s enough to make you want to stay inside, bundle up with your sweetheart, and enjoy something steamy, soft, and maybe a little bit naughty.

Like homemade bread. (What were you thinking?)

I’m very thankful that I stocked up on a ridiculous amount of local flour a couple of months ago because I’ve been baking a good deal lately. And I’ve had help: a handsome fellow who not only enjoys eating homemade bread but who is also willing to push up his sleeves and learn how to make it himself.

So when the weekend rolls around, it’s time for bread-baking lessons — and for sharing the dough.

All we knead

Nearly a year ago, I first offered him a sample of one of my homemade whole-grain breads. As he chewed, a thoughtful expression settled on his face. “Is it hard to make?” he asked at last.

“No,” I replied.  “It just takes time.”

“Would you show me?”

No one’s ever had to ask me that question twice, as I’m always delighted to share what cooking knowledge I’ve gathered over the years. So I pulled together recipes and demonstrated once or twice how to make bread from start to finish.

As the temperatures started to drop in mid-fall, the urge to bake nudged us both back into the kitchen, and he requested a couple of basic recipes that he could try when we didn’t have time to bake together. Step by step, I passed along the tricks and tips I knew, and I watched him handle the dough first with tentative care and gradually with more confidence. (I still sometimes find my hands hovering close by, wanting to get in on the action and to test the dough’s firmness, even though I no longer have to worry about him doing it right.)

His questions constantly stimulated my memory and my desire to learn more:

  • “How hot does the water have to be and why?” Slightly warmer than body temperature, to activate the yeast without killing it (unless you use instant yeast, which we haven’t).
  • “How much flour do I add?”  Enough to hold it together in an elastic dough, but not so much that it gets heavy and leaden; it takes practice to judge that accurately, and I’m still learning myself.
  • “How long do I knead the dough?” It can vary from recipe to recipe, but generally until the dough is smooth and elastic, not too sticky, and doesn’t bounce back easily when pressed.
  • “How will it rise if the house is cold?” Place the dough in a bowl and set it over a pan of hot water; or, as we discovered, since we both keep the thermostat set very low during the day, you can tuck it into a warm cabinet above a furnace vent.

(For lots of entries on baking bread, see my other blog, Rolling in the Dough, and check out this Ethicurean post about baking bread with wild sourdough starter, from Marc.)

The more we baked, the more he craved homemade bread. I had him hooked. Between the fragrance of the warm yeasty loaves, the tactile pleasure in working the dough, the sight of our golden-crusted handiwork, and the heavenly taste of buttered slices, how could anyone resist?

Since then, I keep his pantry stocked with all the necessary ingredients, even sharing some of my stash of local whole wheat flour. As he attempts more bread-baking on his own, he adds better equipment to his kitchen cupboards. I’ve loaned him an extra loaf pan and the new bench knife I received for a Christmas gift, and he has pulled out a long-unused board in order to have enough space for kneading. He has also bought an enormous stainless steel mixing bowl that allows him to make enough dough for two or more loaves at once, instead of halving a recipe to fit a smaller bowl.

Mill, baby, mill

As he becomes more comfortable with the whole process, we experiment with different flours, adapting a recipe to work in these other flavors. One of my favorite recipes, a pain aux noix (a tangy bread studded with walnuts) from “The Breads of France,” works well with different whole grains. In one recent variation, we added half a cup of buckwheat, a couple cups of spelt, and finished off with whole wheat. The resulting multigrain bread (pictured at top) pleased us both with its tender crumb and hearty flavor, and it gave us both ideas for further experiments.

But that wasn’t enough. Both of us have become curious about finding local sources of grains (such as the spelt grown by one of our farming friends) and using them in a fresher form. I’ve found inspiration from a “neighbor” blogger — Emily, from Eat Close to Home, in Ann Arbor, MI — to take the next step by milling my own flour. My baking apprentice not only approved the plan, he drove me to Lehman’s Hardware to test and purchase a small mill.

We started by milling approximately four cups of whole wheat flour from a bucket of wheat berries, enough to make a local rosemary-apple cider variation of the pain aux noix (recipe at the link). Though the milling adds extra time to the whole process, it was a true pleasure to smell the fresh wheat and to enjoy the taste of it in the bread. With any luck, next year at this time I’ll have some of my own home-grown grains to mill (buckwheat and oats, then wheat), and then we can enjoy a light-hearted tussle over who gets to turn the crank.

Worth the wheat

In other baking experiments, we go beyond plain loaves. I started by showing him how to make cinnamon rolls, and he loved them. After polishing off a particularly robust roll, he turned to me and asked with a knowing grin, “Next time, could we make… sticky buns?”

Being easily seduced — by flattery about my baking skills, that is — I agreed. The next time we pulled out the recipe, we filled the dough with a little extra cinnamon and sugar as well as some chopped pecans. That variation turned out so well that we then took the next step and added melted butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, and pecans to the baking dish before we added the rolls.  (See recipe below.)

Talk about sweet decadence! I’d hardly recommend making these every weekend, but I confess that when the pan comes out of the oven, we both look at our handiwork and think “dinner!” And naughty or not, we do indulge.

Other experiments will soon show up in the kitchen, including more enriched breads like challah. (As someone fascinated by knotwork, he’s looking forward to learning how to braid bread dough.) We’ve got our eyes on a couple of flatbread recipes, too, and I’m sure we’ll rifle through my entire bread book collection this winter as more snow is expected very soon.

Whether simple or “sinful,” bread deserves its reputation as the “staff of life.”  Its many variations stretch across the globe and find appeal among people of all ages.  And what other food would inspire both spiritual metaphors (our “daily bread”) and romantic poetry (as in the Rubaiyat‘s famous line “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”)?

So on a cold winter’s day or night, why not find a congenial companion (literally, someone “with bread”), turn up the heat, and bake bread?

Sticky Buns

Based on the recipe for cinnamon rolls found in “Uprisings.”  Makes 16-18 big rolls.

2 T yeast

1 1/3 c warm water

1/4 c honey or maple syrup

2 beaten eggs

1/4 c melted butter

1/3 c dry milk

1 tsp salt

4 1/2 c whole wheat flour (we’ve also used whole wheat and spelt together)

1/4 c melted butter

1/2 c brown sugar or maple sugar

1 T ground cinnamon

1/2 c chopped pecans

In large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water until foamy.  Add honey, eggs, 1/4 c melted butter, dry milk, and salt, whisking to incorporate everything evenly.  Start adding flour, 1/2 c at a time, whisking to avoid lumps and switching to a wooden spoon when the batter thickens.  Continue adding flour until dough forms a ball and starts to clean the sides of the bowl.

Turn dough onto floured counter or board.  Knead remaining flour into the dough until dough is smooth and elastic.  (Don’t add too much extra flour as the dough is supposed to remain tender.)  Shape into a ball, cover with a clean cloth, and allow to rise until nearly double,  30 to 45 minutes.

Roll out dough into a rectangle approximately 1/2″ thick.  Brush melted butter over the dough.  Mix together brown sugar, cinnamon, and pecans, and sprinkle over the buttered surface.  (Hold some back for the pan.)  Roll the dough into a log, keeping the dough snug as you roll it.

Brush a 9″ x 12″ baking dish with remaining melted butter, and sprinkle additional brown sugar, cinnamon, and pecans in the bottom of the pan.  Cut the dough log into slices 1″ to 1 1/2″ thick.  Place in baking dish.  Cover dish and allow rolls to rise until they fill the pan.

Bake rolls at 350 F for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.  Loosen the edges of the rolls, then place a large tray or baking sheet over the pan, grasp pan and tray together firmly, and flip the rolls out onto the tray.  Serve warm.

3 Responsesto “Loafing in a cold climate”

  1. Sarah Lenz says:

    Hi, Jennifer, What part of Northern Ohio do you live in? I recently moved to Northwest Ohio…Bowling Green, to be exact.  I too am a fan of Emily’s Eat Close To Home, and it’s always nice to meet a new “local” blogger.  I loved your post on bread baking, as it is an indulgence in my household as well. I am most curious about where you source your local flour. Can you share this information? Please email me, or leave a post on my blog Prose and Potatoes I’d love to hear from you. Thanks, Sarah

  2. Red Icculus says:

    I love bread.  I make my own as often as possible.

  3. Sarah, I’m in Wooster, and I get my flour from a small grist mill in Orrville.  I don’t know where exactly they get all their grains for milling, but the miller mentioned that the furthest he had gone to pick up grains was a 1 1/2-hr drive away — so they’re still pretty local.  It’s been years since I’ve been to Bowling Green, so I can’t remember if they have a farmers market or co-op, but you might start by asking around there to see if you can find local sources of grains.  (You might also check the OEFFA web site at http://www.oeffa.org to learn about local growers in your county.)  Hope that helps!
    Red, glad you’ve been enjoying bread baking, too!  I can’t believe how much I’ve baked in this cold weather lately…