no bricks here ::::
I remember my excitement when I first received my bread compendium by Bernard Clayton, bought at a little bookstore in Northeast Harbor in Maine one summer. I recently reviewed the contents of the book, bookmarking a multitude of recipes, only to be distracted by another bread recipe I recently saw on the America’s Test Kitchen’s TV show late one insomniac night. It was just too good to pass up. And it was all about wheat.
My foray into wheat is a strange one. As a child, I always preferred the stark white sliced bread normally served with American “cheese” and such at friends’ homes. It was Europe that changed me. While I still like a nice white flour baguette from time to time, I am devoted to wheat breads, grainy ones, seedy ones, ones soft and sliced or crispy and whole.
It may have started with a view of the raw grain itself. A friend’s neighborhood in England was bordered by a small, shallow brook. Across it, lay a large, breezy wheat field. The stream bank to reach it was steep but scaled easily, more tenuous after a rain. We often climbed this bank to view the other-worldliness of the field, so different from the boxy houses, green gardens, and busy roads back to our own homes.
It was the home of my American friend, Raejean, that we frequented in that neighborhood, another American friend and me. Raejean was originally from one of the Carolinas (I don’t remember which now) and had a poise unlike my other friends. She taught me how to play Monopoly, never believed in getting dressed up for school photos (what was the point of looking totally different than any normal day at school?), and fawned over her pet baby hamster that her mother would only allow her to keep at the neighbor’s house. Michelle, the other American, had a little more of a Northeastern attitude, giving me a look of irritation when I tried to speak Yiddish after she told me she was half Catholic and half Jewish. For years afterwards, I was afraid to even acknowledge that Yiddish existed, for fear I would offend someone at the mention.
But one thing we three did agree on, besides wanting to be the dog playing piece in Monopoly, is that we liked climbing around the blackberry brambles in the neighborhood and through the brook bordering the wheat field. We avoided the stinging nettles, waded through the Queen Anne’s Lace on many of these adventures. Raejean convinced us that the wheat was for the taking. At nine years old, I didn’t expect an to get a hand slap from an angry farmer. Luckily, we did not run into trouble. In hindsight, I don’t think it was wise to pick it, even a little. I’m not even sure it was supposed to be edible.
But we picked the wheat, at Raejean’s urging, and headed home to cook it. She was convinced it would pop like popcorn. We separated the wheat from the chaff best we could with little fingers, heated up a pan of oil with help from her mom, and watched the grain just brown with nary a pop. She served this treat with the orange-red soft drink Tizer. I now forever associate Tizer with that experience, only drinking it again one time later on my honeymoon in England and wondering if it would taste better with some fried wheat on the side.
Today’s recipe for whole-wheat sandwich bread is heavy on the wheat like that strange choice for our afternoon tea years ago. It’s heavy and light at the same time. It’s not a loaf of bread reminiscent of a brick, like many wheaty breads. The secrets are the biga (pre-ferment step) and the soaker (this helps soften the wheat).
You may find this recipe is your not-so-strange foray into wheat. But then, maybe you have an odd story like mine.
One year ago: perfect popovers
Two years ago: fennel, apple, gouda salad
- 2 cups (8½ ounces) bread flour
- 1 cup (8 ounces) warm water (about 110 degrees F)
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast
- 3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat flour, plus some extra for kneading
- ½ cup wheat germ
- 2 cups (16 ounces) whole milk
- ¼ cup honey
- 4 teaspoons table salt
- 2 tablespoons instant yeast
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- bread flour for work surface
- Special equipment: One strong stand mixer and three 8½ by 4½ inch loaf pans
- FOR THE BIGA (i.e., the starter): Combine the bread flour, water, and yeast in a large bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until a uniform mass forms and no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow to stand at room temperature (about 70 degrees F) for 8-24 hours.
- FOR THE SOAKER: This step softens the whole-wheat flour. Combine whole-wheat flour, wheat germ, and milk in a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until a shaggy mass forms, about 1 minute. Turn this mass out onto a light floured work surface and knead until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Return to bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 8-24 hours.
- FOR THE DOUGH: Gear up your stand mixer for some heavy duty kneading. This will make your motor work! Tear soaker apart into 1-inch pieces and place in stand mixer's bowl, fitted with a dough hook. Add biga, honey, salt, yeast, butter, and oil. Mix on low speed until a smooth, uniform mass forms, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, 8-10 minutes. Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface and knead 1 minute. Shape dough into ball and place in lightly greased bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature for 45 minutes.
- FOLDING: Gently deflate. Hold one edge of the dough with fingertips, and fold partially risen dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough to middle. Turn bowl 90 degrees, then fold again. Turn bowl 90 degrees 6 more times (for 8 folds total). Cover and allow to rise at room temperature for about 45 minutes (it should be about doubled in volume).
- Adjust oven racks to middle and lowest levels. Gently oil two 8½ by 4½ inch loaf pans. Transfer dough to well-floured surface and divide into two equal pieces. Pat each into an 8 by 17-inch rectangle. Working with one rectangle at a time, start rolling a short edge, roll dough into a firm cylinder, keeping roll taut and tucking it as you roll. Turn loaf seam side up and pinch it closed. Place the seam down into prepared loaf pan, pressing gently into corners. Repeat with second roll of dough. Loosely cover each loaf pan with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until almost doubled, about 60-90 minutes. As dough is rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. The tops of the loaves should be about 1 inch over the lip of each pan when fully risen.
- Place empty loaf pan on bottom of oven rack and fill with 2 cups of boiling water. Using a single-edge razor blade, make one ¼-inch slash lengthwise down the center of each loaf. Set loaves into oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. Bake until crust is dark brown, about 40-50 minutes, rotating the loaves halfway through the baking time. Internal temperature will be 200 degrees F (I did not check this temperature -- I just eyeballed the crust color.)
- Transfer pans to rack to cool for 5 minutes, then remove loaves from pans to rack to continue to cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. I couldn't help but sneak a few bites of warm bread with salted butter -- excellent.
- The leftover bread is wonderful toasted. To store, wrap in two layers of plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 3 days. You can freeze bread for up to a month, but also wrap it in aluminum foil.