I learned how to make my first loaf of bread when I was 18 years old. While I had the responsibility for making the desserts with my mom while growing up, we never made homemade bread.
My room mates made the White Bread Plus recipe out of the Joy Of Cooking cookbook and it tasted so incredible! The texture and flavor were like nothing I had ever had from the supermarket or a bakery. It was the standard for perfect bread as far as I was concerned. The aroma made the whole house smell good. I couldn’t believe it when Joy of Cooking did a complete updated volume and left White Bread Plus out of the bread chapter and went for more trendy breads like focaccia and pizza.
I was so curious and took the plunge one day; I set up all the ingredients on the counter and set to making bread with a wooden spoon, big bowl, and my hands. I followed the recipe carefully and when all the flour was added, I still had a sloppy, wet dough. “What to do!!?” I called my room mate in a panic. “Just add more flour until it is right,” he replied. What a relief. Just knead it until it feels right. That first loaf took over an hour to mix and knead. Bread baking was an all day affair.
The next big evolutionary step was to make cinnamon swirl bread. I used the same white bread dough, but shaped it different, rolling up the brown sugar and cinnamon inside. Now that was popular. It made such great toast. I had to put the loaves to cool on top of the refrigerator, otherwise people would hack off pieces and there would only be a few heels left of two loaves in an hour. One day I walked into the kitchen and there were my room mates on chairs cutting the bread on top of the fridge. Caught in the act. I moved onto a light wheat bread, 50-50, but wasn’t so successful (I wanted that perfect texture every time), so I stuck with the white bread. I was not defeated, just deferred for a time.
My next big jump was when my neighbor, Judy Larsen, shared some of her mother’s bread recipes from Sweden. Judy baked weekly and was so generous to share her
wisdom with me. Those days in her farmhouse kitchen laid the strong foundation for my bread making today. All the recipes are in my books. The white bread was enhanced with crushed cardamom. The Swedish rye bread is light textured, slightly sweet, and addicting. The Limpa has molasses and is on every Scandinavian holiday buffet. Of course the favorite bread was the Graham Bread, so old fashioned and the recipe made 4 big loaves…one for slicing immediately, one for sandwiches, one for freezing, and one for giving. These bread recipes were so perfect, that I became more enamored of baking by the great success I was getting.
I finally cracked the code for whole wheat bread. The short starter. Just that little bit of extra time with the starter, 15 to 60 minutes, makes the world of difference in whole grain breads. I got a 100 percent whole wheat bread, made into a free form round, that tasted like the sweet whole grain. This was the bread every bread maker wanted to accomplish. It was easy enough to share so that every baker could make it. From there I went backwards to the 50-50 whole wheat and unbleached flour loaves made in the standard loaf pan, which were less assertive tasting and lighter in texture.
I never knew where Bon Appetit magazine got my name, but one day I got a letter from them (pre-email days so it came in the mailbox) asking if I would be interested in a photo shoot layout for their featured cooking teacher section and an article with a batch of my bread recipes. I was over the moon. We set up in a home kitchen in Palo Alto selected by Randi Danforth, the producer of the story and long time magazine writer, and Carol Field (who went on to publish the iconic baking book The Italian Baker) did the writing, sitting on a chair in the corner, asking me questions and watching me work. When that story ran, I had put my parent’s address for contact information. I received about 500 letters and I answered each one personally. My parents had to put the letters in shopping bags for me to pick up. The article is free as a download on my website, bethhensperger.com.
I made lots of bread at home for years, collecting recipes from my friends and their mothers, then went to work at St. Michael’s Alley restaurant as a waitress. But my love was baking and I was bursting with ambition to become a better backer. I switched to the kitchen from the front of the house and started baking. I apprenticed with Barbara Hiken, who was a consummate bread baker, had a great palate, and lots of interesting opinions about food. She had a panache that she infused into her baking and taught me to do the same. I feel lucky now having apprenticed, which is a time-honored path to being a pro cook.
At first we only made desserts from like Maida Heatter; the chef made the bread.
Well, he quit and the responsibility fell to us to figure out how to make the bread. This was the era when homemade bread on a fine dining table was like putting hippies in the Hilton. First Barbara brought the recipe for James beard’s Cuban Bread. It was French bread, only we thought less time consuming and tricky since we only had the restaurant range ovens. We also had no experience in making more than 2 loaves at a time. And we had to use the big Hobart mixer with the dough hook like a bull horn it was so big. It was a basic lean dough and we could let it rise as many times as we needed to and it only got better. We could shape it into long or round loaves. We didn’t weigh the dough; we eyeballed portioning. The long were better for the breadbasket. We liked to have it ready for the lunch rush at 11am and it was easiest to bake before the line chefs got busy, since the ovens were under the main stove work area. Our bread was received with raves. We bakers all used to have sandwiches made on it while still warm for lunch break.
Then Barbara found a local bread making class at the local grammar school. We both signed up and met
Connie Pfieffer, who was our first bread guru. Connie came from a Danish baker’s family. Connie would line us up at tables and provided the ingredients, we would bring our own Tupperware or mixing bowl, measuring cup, and utensils, then copy her as she made the dough. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time I didn’t know how to handle making a yeast dough. We would take it home to rise (although dough loves the car for some reason and it rose by the time I got home), then shape and bake ourselves.
There we learned a basic buttermilk white bread. It is still my basic bread recipe and I have done many variations on it. We added bran, molasses, and sunflower seeds since our clientele were demanding whole grain. It was a great success and Bran Molasses Sunflower Bread was born. It was our signature house bread at Saint Michaels Alley bistro and gained a following of devoted eaters. One day a representative from Oroweat showed up thinking they might want to copy the bread for their commercial line. When I did my first photo shoot for Bon Appetit magazine, this was the bread on the cover of that issue. It is also the bread my friend who cooked for the late Chogam Trungpa, the Tibetan monk who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West, served when she was catering for him. It became a bread he requested when traveling in the Bay Area and he said it contained live spirit that transferred to the eater. There is a word in Tibetan for this concept, but heck if I know it.
Then Barbara brought in a Challah she had tasted at a party. It was as close to perfect as a bread can be and that is the bread I recommend to first time bakers; their success is guaranteed. We now had three great breads in our bread basket, all different shapes and all stupendously delicious. It was the bread Viktor Budnik, our cross-the-street neighbor at the restaurant, loved and then asked me to do my first bread book, Bread with Chronicle Books, with him as the photographer. His dramatic black cover is one of my favorite bread photos. Getting that first book contract was the eye of the needle and I knew it, so I jumped right in. That was 24 books ago.
People who loved the bread I made asked for the recipe and if I taught classes. Before long, I was teaching classes at night in the bakery to a small group. It was wonderfully successful. I then signed up to begin teaching in a local cooking school and taught baking for the next 12 years. You can’t imagine how much you learn when you teach! Writing about baking was the next logical step, especially since I am a natural wordsmith.
When I moved to Santa Cruz, California, first I worked at Gayle’s Bakery, which is a bit of a legend
in that coastal area. I was in charge of the croissant and Danish doughs, making them, adding the butter package, and then rolling them out on the Italian sheeter machine. They sat in the fridge overnight and were rolled out, cut, shaped, and baked off the next day in the wee hours by the other baker. It was a real skill making hundreds of croissants. Then I worked at India Joze restaurant, which was a bohemian hang out downtown and served highly creative fusion cuisine. We made the croissants, but rolled them out by hand. You really learn a lot about dough when you do every step by hand.
In the late 1990s, I met Mary Anne McCready as a catering client, who was an amateur gourmet cook. We spent hours talking about food. Mary Anne had a Panasonic bread machine she had bought at Williams-Sonoma. I had no interest. I believed that the best bread was made with your own hands. In a pinch, the Kitchen Aid stand mixer or a food processor, but by hand would always be my first choice. Mary Anne enthusiastically told me about the breads she was making and how great the bread machine was. Being an active bread maker, she was constantly looking for new recipes. She asked me to develop a few recipes for her using her favorite ingredients: white flour, rye flour, beer, eggs, and onions (try the Polish Beer Rye on page 141). So we started working together on recipes for the bread machine. “You ought to write a be-all, end-all bread machine cookbook,” encouraged Mary Anne.
Little did I know that writing a book like that was even possible.
So with Mary Anne by my side, we lined up a half dozen bread machines on her kitchen counter, all different models and manufacturers, and set to work. I didn’t know how to work the machine at all. What buttons should I push? When I plugged it in, would it blow all the fuses? Can I touch the dough in the machine? These questions guided me when writing the introduction and the how tos of making dough in the bread machine.
What happened next is part of my culinary mythology. I got hooked on making bread in the machine. While testing, I would make a loaf in the machine. The first few times, I had to constantly refer to the manual, write
down all the instructions, and analyze loaves that were too flat! But once I got proficient at the sequence of programming the machine and got the right ingredients, all I wanted to do was bake in the machine! I love lifting the lid and looking inside at the dough hook working that dough. And the closed environment is perfect for raising the dough; it is quiet and warm. Some days I make bread, take it out of the machine, and start all over again to make another loaf right away because it is so gratifying and fun! I renewed my enthusiasm for baking and it was something I could never have predicted. I had to revise my opinions about how to make bread and include the machine (I had a great bread machine made by Salton/Breadman, then moved onto a Panasonic, both from Williams-Sonoma).
Obviously I made a lot of loaves in the machine (the Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, published in 2000, has over 300 recipes in it), but the way you get to be good at making bread machine bread is to do it as many times as possible until it becomes easy…and it will!
There are so very many excellent recipes in The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook. This is one-stop shopping: the detailed how-tos, guide to ingredients, step-by-step recipe instructions, and every type of bread you could ever imagine. I open the book and say to myself, “I have to make that today!” I look for any occasion to bake for friends or give bread as a gift.
The recipe I make most is the Buttermilk Whole Wheat Bread on page 108. I vary it by adding molasses, honey, or maple syrup. You would think such a small amount of sweetening wouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Each time there is a new flavor to the loaf. The vital wheat gluten is the magic ingredient. You must have it to make superb textured whole wheat breads. When a baker is having problems getting a perfect loaf out of the machine, this is the recipe I recommend. It turns out perfect every time.
The artisan bread chapter is of special pride to me. It was the section I worked on at the very end of the project and I thought I had learned all there was about the machine. I was wrong! Artisan breads use the bread machine not only for mixing, but for long rests to develop the flavor and texture; the breads are shaped by hand and baked in your home oven. Doughs that could never be successfully made at home (they are left very, very wet and sticky) by hand are a snap in the machine. The pane francese (page 236) and ciabatta bread (page 240) are very popular in bakeries. I never thought I could make bread at home that would be as good. Guess what! The breads were every bit as beautiful and delicious as from the best Italian bakery! When you feel comfortable with baking in your machine, do give these breads a try; the ingredients are simple and the amount of hands-on time is pure magic. Make up a batch of the Two-Week Biga (page 243) and set to work. I promise you a stunning revelation….you will be not only feel competent, but be touted by your family and friends as a fantastic baker!
After all, isn’t that what baking bread is all about?
Whole Wheat Cuban Bread
Originally made popular in James Beard’s cooking classes on the Oregon seashore, so it is somewhat of a famous bread in cooking circles, Cuban Bread was the first French style bread dough I mastered when learning how to bake. It was brought with Cuban refugees to Miami and the restaurants of Manhattan. It is crusty on the outside, tender and chewy on the inside. The crisp crust is made by letting the dough a second kneading cycle to develop the gluten. This adaptation with part whole wheat flour will make it a favorite, for it is as easy as it is delicious.
1 1/2-pound loaf
1 1/4 cups water
1 3/4 cups organic bread flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons gluten
1 tablespoon granulated cane sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 1/4 teaspoons bread machine yeast
1. Place all the ingredients in the pan according to manufacturer’s instructions. Set crust on medium and program for the Basic or French Bread cycle; press Start. After the kneading cycle, reset, allowing the dough to be kneaded a second time.
2. After the baking cycle ends, immediately remove the bread from the pan, place on a rack to cool to room temperature before slicing.
Excerpted from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2000, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Text Copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
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