Bread truly is a fundamental food for my family. Every morning, we have toast; often sandwiches for lunch. If it’s a soup night – and at least twice a week it is – bread is a familiar companion at the table. Bread is a ready snack in the afternoon, and (with honey) a nice way to wind down before sleep. The scent of it rising and browning in the oven on baking day is like nothing else: filling the corners of the house, reaching all the way to our hearts.
Before I had my daughter, I took on breadmaking enthusiastically. My husband and I couldn’t find an affordable and healthful loaf at local stores. Too many labels boasted of unpronounceable ingredients, preservatives, glucose, and other elements we didn’t want in our bodies. We just didn’t have the budget to buy chic bakery loaves, which were too petite to satisfy our appetites anyway. So I committed myself to making bread on a regular schedule. Back then, spending the three to four consecutive hours needed to produce two loaves was doable, and enjoyable. I loved experimenting with loaves, trying new shapes, new flavour combinations. I knew exactly what went into every slice that went into us.
Then came our baby, and everything – including my breadmaking routine – changed. How ironic that in those early days of parenthood, when we were so tired, when I was breastfeeding and ever-ravenous, just when we needed our nourishing, reliable old friend the most, we had no homemade bread. I couldn’t do it. Eventually, fed up with spongy bread from the supermarket, we got a bread machine, and for a time this worked. Pop in the ingredients, punch in your setting: easy peasy. The house filled with the scent of newly baked bread again. But I yearned for a loaf that wasn’t so dry on the bottom; I wanted to feel dough in my hands again. I also didn’t like that the non-stick coating in our bread machine’s loaf pan was peeling away, doubtless leaving residue on our food. When our machine died, after only a year’s use, I faced a choice: keep using a machine (and feed the garbage dump another model in a year), or recommit to handmade bread.
It helped that my daughter was older, and playing with dough was something that could keep her busy while I kneaded and shaped. I felt it was important for her to watch and participate in this most basic of food-making skills. Even now she is so proud when she helps shape a loaf and lift it into a pan to rise (“Good luck, little bread,” she whispers). Still, with errands to run every day, a dog to walk, the outside air beckoning to us, it was a challenge to work my way through all the steps (mix, knead, rise, punch down, shape, rise, bake) within a given half-day. My daughter’s appetite grew every day, so I found myself in the kitchen making more bread, every four days instead of every week. Finally, with time and much tweaking, I put in place a system that fits perfectly in our lives. It provides us with enough bread to see us through seven days, so that I can reserve breadmaking for a particular day of the week. Yet it also allows for flexibility in schedules on baking day itself. If you’ve ever thought breadmaking to be too finicky, or saved only for special holidays when time allows, try this method. Fill your house with the warmth of new bread, and help nourish those whom you hold most dear.
Many Loaves and a Long Rise
The standard bread recipe’s yield of two loaves may be sufficient to feed your family for a week. We need three. Maybe you need four. My goal is always to bake bread once a week: try to make this your goal too and determine how many loaves that means. You can take your favourite basic two-loaf recipe and multiply each ingredient amount by 1.5 to get three loaves; multiply each ingredient amount by 2 to get four loaves. (Most ovens should fit four loaf pans on one rack, but check first to ensure that yours does!). Check that you have a sufficient amount of ingredients for these larger yields. Once you commit to making bread regularly, it’s worth your money to buy ingredients in bulk. Resource local mills to buy flour direct from them; I buy 18-kilogram sacks of flour from a mill in my region and keep them in my chest freezer.
Set aside an hour to start your breadmaking session. I always do this first step in the early morning, so that the rest of the day is free. Assemble all your ingredients in front of you before beginning. If you store your yeast in the fridge, or your seeds and flours in the freezer, you will need to bring these to room temperature (perhaps by bringing out the amounts you need the night before). Proceed with the recipe. For the kneading stage, I always defer to my stand mixer and dough hook. This appliance was a costly investment to begin with, but in the two years that I’ve had it now, it has more than proven itself worthy: it kneads reliably, and it frees up my hands to prepare for the next stage so that I’m finished faster. Once your dough is well kneaded – whether by hand or machine – let it rest in a greased bowl, covered by a damp cloth, for about 20 minutes.
While the dough rises, prepare the loaf pans: I always grease the entire inside surface with vegetable shortening and dust all the grease lightly with flour, then I sprinkle cornmeal over the bottom inner surface of the pan. I get a small bowl of about 2 tbsp. vegetable oil ready, with a silicone brush nearby. I also like to clean up while the dough has this mini-rise. Finally, after 20 minutes, punch down the dough, divide it into 2, 3, or 4 lumps (as determined by your recipe), roll out and shape each loaf and put them in the pans, and brush each loaf’s top with some vegetable oil. Cover each loaf top completely with a piece of parchment paper, then place in a clear plastic bag (it should be roomy enough to allow for the loaf’s growth — like a grocery store produce bag, or an old store-bought loaf’s bag), securing the bag closed with a twist-tie or clothespin. Line up your loaves in the fridge, and get on with your day.
Your loaves will rise slowly in the fridge for as long as you need before you can devote another hour to the last stage. I let my loaves rise for about 8 hours, until dinner. With this method, I’m not committed to staying around the house for three hours straight as I would be with a conventional recipe. Just before I start dinner, I preheat the oven, pull out the loaves and let them sit on the countertop for about 20 minutes while I make my meal, then pop the loaves in the oven to bake for 40 minutes. (Oven timers are your best reminders, especially if you’re multi-tasking while the bread is baking.)
A few things of note: Keep the loaves in their bags until just before you bake them. Take the plastic bag and parchment paper off very gently. If the dough has formed any bubbles on the top, pop them with a toothpick; you can also carefully lift any dough that has seeped over the sides of the loaf pans. If you’re using glass loaf pans, as I do, you need to make sure your pans aren’t still too chilled from the fridge before putting them in the hot oven. Also, arrange your loaf pans in the oven with equal spacing between them.
Your loaves are done, and with only two hours of attention on your part – plus a significant gap of time between stages when you’re free to leave the house or cook something else in the oven. You don’t have to follow my example of scheduling: try making your dough before going to bed, letting it rise overnight in the fridge, and baking it in the morning. You can also let it rise in the fridge for only a couple of hours rather than my eight – even three hours is enough to give it shape. (I have never let my dough rise in the fridge for longer than 10 hours.) Any way you do it, your house will fill with the scent of home again.
Here’s my old standby three-loaf recipe, which feeds our three-person, toast-loving family for a week:
Whole Wheat Seed Bread
Makes 3 standard-sized loaves
½ tsp. + 2 tbsp. liquid honey
1 cup warm water (just a little warmer than room temperature)
5 tsp. active yeast
2¼ cups hot water
4½ tbsp. sunflower oil + 1 tbsp. for loaf coating after shaping
1 tbsp. blackstrap molasses
3 tsp. sea salt
4 cups whole wheat bread flour
1 tbsp. flax seeds
2 tbsp. shelled natural sunflower seeds
1 tbsp. natural sesame seeds
4-5 cups unbleached white flour
Vegetable shortening for greasing
Cornmeal for dusting
In a small bowl, dissolve ½ tsp. honey in 1 cup warm water. Sprinkle yeast on top and mix well, dissolving yeast. Let stand until frothy.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of your stand mixer – or, if you intend to hand-knead, in a large bowl – whisk together hot water, 4½ tbsp. oil, 2 tbsp. honey, molasses, and salt.
Gradually stir in the whole wheat flour, a cup at a time, stirring well between cups. Once all of the whole wheat flour has been added, and the batter is only warm, add the frothy yeast mixture and the seeds. Stir well (I count to 100 “stirs” to be sure!).
Begin adding the white flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring between additions. Once it gets too tough to stir by hand, either transfer to your mixer using the dough hook attachment, or turn out the dough on a lightly floured work surface and begin kneading. Add white flour as needed, to achieve a consistent, elastic dough. If I am using a stand mixer, I knead for about 7 minutes, adding flour as required; if I am hand-kneading, I knead for about 10 minutes.
Once your dough is sufficiently kneaded, transfer it to a bowl (keep it in the same bowl if you used a mixer) and cover with a cloth. Let stand for 20 minutes.
While the bread is rising, prepare the loaf pans. Rub the inner surface of each pan with some vegetable shortening, enough to coat lightly. Dust white flour over the greased surfaces; sprinkle a teaspoon or so of cornmeal over the bottom inner surface of each. This combined treatment makes it easy to pop out the loaves after baking.
Once the dough has stood, covered, for 20 minutes, turn out on a floured work surface and punch down. Divide into three equal pieces. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the first piece to about ½” thickness. Take the bottom edge and curl it up, rolling all the way to the top so that you have a long loaf; tuck in each side edge so that the loaf will fit in the pan, then transfer to the pan. Repeat with the other pieces.
Use a silicone brush to lightly coat the surface of each loaf with sunflower oil. Cut three pieces of parchment paper, one for each loaf: each paper should be exactly the size of the loaf’s top. Place a piece on each loaf, then put each loaf in a plastic bag, twisting the bags closed and sealing them with a clothespin. The bags should be air-tight, yet loose enough to allow for the loaves to rise at the top.
Transfer the loaves to the fridge. Let them sit side-by-side, near the front of the fridge. Leave a little space between them for top expansion. Let them chill and slowly rise for at least 3 hours (I suggest no more than 10 hours, but experiment for yourself!).
When you are ready to bake the bread, position your oven rack so that the loaves will sit at the mid-way height. Preheat the oven to 400 F then remove the loaves from the fridge and let them sit on the counter for about 20 minutes. Uncover the loaves just before baking, gently popping any surface bubbles or pushing up any side seepage of dough.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown on top and make a hollow sound when tapped on their bottoms. Turn out of their pans immediately, letting them cool on a wire rack.
I leave one loaf out for room temperature storage, and freeze the other two to take out later in the week. In either case, I store my loaves in tightly sealed plastic bags – and only after they have completely cooled.
Try adding a teaspoon of ground cinnamon with the whole wheat flour for a more aromatic loaf.
You may want a sweeter loaf: try increasing the honey to ¼ cup.
Andrea Belcham is the author of Food and Fellowship: Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community. She is also the co-founder of a community-supported kitchen, Stone Soup Cooperative. Andrea lives in Quebec with her husband and daughter.