This evening, I was sick of the television, the internet, and doing laundry, so I turned everything off and started browsing through Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. A few years ago, I got really into the idea of homesteading, and when I get into something, I read. A lot. So, I subscribed to Countryside and Mother Earth News and bought a stack of books, including Carla Emery’s, which I had read was a classic. It has everything – gardening, cooking, raising animals – even birthing babies and burying your dead. She is really conversational and candid, and the book is just packed with solid, insightful information and a million recipes.
I have read the book cover to cover, but it is so packed that I still have a lot to glean. This evening, I started looking at the bread section. Basically, she explains the basic components of bread making, gives some tips, and then gives a million recipes. I’ve been making bread for a couple of years now. It smells good, it feels good on my hands, and the taste is a million years away from store-bought bread. Nothing beats oven-hot, freshly-baked bread with melting butter. Nothing. It is worth every moment of work, and the work itself is actually quite meditative. But then I love the visceral experience of process. Back to my reading…
Carla Emery says, when making bread, you can pretty much throw whatever you want in there, but 75% still needs to be your wheat flour if you want a good rise (good rise = bread not stone). My mind began to wander and I thought of the roasted butternut squash that I had leftover in my freezer from Thanksgiving (um, that’s last Thanksgiving.) Recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed with the idea of whole grains and whole wheat flour, and this merged in my mind with the squash, and my squash bread was born.
Now, people make bread with squash. This is not a new idea. There are a zillion recipes for such bread if you search allrecipes.com or cooks.com. But I decided to invent my own bread. That’s right – baking bread without a recipe, ha! (Pardon the irreverent laughter.)
I can’t actually remember if I’ve gone recipe-less with bread before, but I don’t think so. I have two old standbys that I use most of the time. But, I know what a bread recipe must consist of, thanks to Carla Emery, so this knowledge was my safety net:
THE MUST-HAVES: Bread is not bread without flour, liquid, and leavening (for a leavened bread. If you want unleavened, you can stop at flour and liquid.) In fact, that’s all that’s in Italian bread. Maybe a bit of salt.
Flour: Already decided. All whole wheat flour. This can make bread a bit dense, and the yeast can have a bit of a tough time getting into the flour, so I used some vital wheat gluten to give the yeast a hand. You can also do part white, part wheat, or add stuff like some buckwheat, rye, etc. But remember Carla’s 75% rule above.
Liquid: Just water. Warmed, to appeal to the yeast (and melt the butter I mention later.) You can also do milk, buttermilk, or something crazy like tea or juice… never tried that. When making potato bread, you can use the water from boiling potatoes. You could use a light vegetable stock, too.
Leavening: Yeast. I make so much bread that I buy in bulk from King Arthur’s Flour. Two tablespoons is pretty standard, or two packets from the grocery store (baking aisle, usually top shelf above the flour.) Other kinds of things use other kinds of leaveners; quick breads use baking powder or soda and an acid.
Shortening: That means the fat, for me, butter. You could use literal vegetable shortening, lard, or even some oil.
Sweetener: For this recipe, some brown sugar and molasses. Sweetener is certainly not needed, but it is nice.
Other: Today, roasted squash, oatmeal, and spices. Often, salt. Also, you can add eggs, mashed potatoes, nuts, vegetables, anything! (Erm, edible.)
So, that’s it. Once you know the “formula,” you can play. Here’s a recipe for the delicious, slightly orange, squash bread I made today. Even if you don’t plan to make it, read through for a few bread-making tips:
Scratch Squash-Oatmeal Bread
Ingredients: 2/3 stick of butter; ½ c. brown sugar; 1 t. molasses; ½ t. each: ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice; 1 t. salt; 1 c. oats; few grinds of black pepper; ½ c. wheat gluten; 5-6 c. whole wheat flour; 1 ¼ c. water; 2 T. yeast; 1 ¼ c. mashed roasted butternut squash
Put the butter, brown sugar, molasses, spices and salt, wheat gluten, and 1 cup of the whole wheat flour in a bowl. Heat the water to near-boiling and pour over mixture. Stir and let cool to lukewarm.
(Use preroasted butternut squash [you could try canned]. Basically, peel, rough cut, put on a baking sheet, cover in olive oil, salt, and pepper, bake at 350 until soft and lightly browned.)
Add yeast and mashed roasted butternut squash to the bowl and stir. Stir in more flour, cup by cup, until it is difficult to stir (about 3 more cups). Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Knead and add more flour until you have a soft, slightly sticky dough, about 5-8 minutes. (You knead by smushing in the middle of the dough with the heels of your palms, folding the dough in half, turning 90 degrees, and smushing again; repeat, um, many times.)
Put the dough in a clean bowl and cover with a towel. (Use a tea towel, not a cottony one, because you don’t want little fibers stuck to the top of your dough as it rises.) Let it rise in a warm place for about an hour. (For me, my best shot at a “warm place” is in my oven. I stick it in, turn it on to preheat for about 15 seconds, and then turn it off and leave the dough inside. You’re aiming for about 80 degrees.)
After it’s risen, take it out and punch it down. I like to turn it out onto my floured surface again (be sure to have wiped up dried bits of dough – you don’t want that imbedded in your soft, risen dough) and give it a few kneads.
Divide the dough in thirds and form into small loaves. I do this by folding the dough so that the sticky, cut side is folded inside, kneading without turning a few times, and sealing the bottom seam by pinching along it. Put your loaves into greased (I use organic canola cooking spray) loaf pans. (I like Pyrex – I can see the bottoms, and I can use a knife to pry things out if needed.)
Set these to rise a second time in your happy, warm place for about 40 minutes covered with the towel. Then, take them out, preheat to 350 degrees, and stick them back in. They’ll need to bake for about 45 minutes and should sound hollow when you rap on them with your knuckles. Turn the loaves out onto wire racks to cool. Wait about 10 minutes, then have a thick slice with butter. (If you keep making bread, you’ll want to get yourself a good, long bread knife.) Yum.