Last weekend, Skowhegan Fairgrounds was the site of a Kneading Conference and Artisanal Bread Fair. My friends Paula Marcoux and Preston Woodburn came for a visit afterwards and we talked bread, biscuits and ovens. Paula builds outdoor ovens for bread and any other baking you can imagine and is a fabulous cook and bread maker besides. Plus, I had just been to the Wilson Museum in Castine where museum head Patty Hutchins had assembled an exhibit of historic bread making equipment and a display of various grains and the flours they made. Bread was very much on my mind.
So while Paula and I picked peas both for supper and for me to freeze, having four sets of hands that afternoon to shell them out (Paula, Pret, Toby and me), we talked about making bread both now and in the past.
A lot of the bakers at the conference were professionals who make those marvelous widely available crusty, European-style round, oval, and long loaves. Most of us at home are not going to make that style loaf, forming them by hand and baking them on a sheet. Those loaves were designed to be cast on an oven floor if you have the kind of oven that Paula builds or that fireplace ovens in old houses had. When Americans made a switch to stoves with ovens fitted with racks through which a cast loaf would drip and sag, we began baking bread in pans. Of course, you won’t end up with as nice an all-over crust as with a cast loaf.
The other thing that happened was we became a little impatient and wanted bread to hurry up. We stopped setting sponges — essentially bowls of loose flour, water and yeast mixtures, as veritable yeast gardens to which we added more flour to rise gradually — and instead we puts lots of yeast in flour, added sugar for it to grow on and watched it double in size in an hour.
Even so, some people think that takes a long time, too. And some of you may be on the no-knead bread bandwagon, too, where you mix up the flour, water, salt and yeast and let it rise long and slowly, turn it into a hot Dutch oven to bake, mostly done without putting hand to dough. No matter what, you get bread, and while there may be some who get a little sniffy about the hyper-yeasted bread made with sugar and milk, kneaded until, as a friend once said, the dough feels like a baby’s bottom, I figure more power to anyone who bothers to make homemade bread at all.
The recipe that follows is for a favorite pan loaf that I make regularly. I found the recipe in All Maine Cooking which came out in 1967. It’s a recipe for Oatmeal Bread submitted by Mrs. Norman Hilyard of Cushing. Sometimes I make it with all white flour; sometimes I use half whole wheat and half white. The original calls for shortening and I use butter.
Makes 2 standard loaves
2 cups slow-cooking rolled oats
1 tablespoon salt
⅓ cup butter
3½ cups boiling water
½ cup molasses
½ teaspoon sugar
2 packages of dry yeast
½ cup warm water
7-8 cups flour
Mix together the oatmeal, salt, shortening and the boiling water. Stir and let it cool. Add the molasses. In a separate small bowl, add the sugar and the yeast to the warm water. Stir and let stand a few minutes then add to the cooled oatmeal and molasses mixture.
Add five cups of the flour to the oatmeal to begin with and more until you have a stiff dough. Reserve some flour for kneading. Grease a large bowl, and let the dough rise in it until doubled; punch it down and let it rise again. Knead until it is smooth and springs back lightly when you poke it with your finger.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease two bread pans. Shape the dough into loaves and place in the pans. Let rise until doubled and slightly above the edge of the pan. Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes.