How exactly do I get myself into these things?
I just can’t help myself…
During this week’s pilgrimage to the Union Square Whole Foods, I had an epiphany. It happened somewhere in Gramercy, as I was enraptured by the beauty of Gramercy Park, enjoying a rare moment of tranquility in this city while pondering the structural breakdown of my weekly grocery haul. Each week I budget myself to spend just $50 to $60 dollars on groceries, which can be a bit tricky in Manhattan – especially if your palate leads you to new and unusual types of produce and the latest offerings of Kashi, foods that rarely fall into the “bargain buy” category. This budget has led me to forgo the Food Emporium and Gristedes that lie within walking distance of my apartment for the Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Union Square green market, which are considerably cheaper. It has led me to buy whatever I can from local fruit and vegetable stands during the warm weather months. And on this particular day, it led me to question the very root of grocery shopping.
“Why do I buy bread?”
The answer of course, is obvious. Everyone needs bread – for sandwiches, for toast, for the occasional snack where only something simple and carby smothered in jelly will suffice. Lately I’ve been working my way through every “healthy” bread in the grains aisle – I’ve sampled Weight Watchers bread (air surrounded by crust, I promise you), Arnold’s new “HealthFull” bread, Pepperidge Farm’s Carb-Smart. All tout high fiber, low carb, low-calorie promises, and all fail to quell hunger, and many leave you with the sneaking suspicion that you’ve just consumed more chemicals and processed corn than actual whole grains and natural ingredients.
So I pondered this, and then I pondered the five pound bag of whole wheat flour that was gathering dust in our pantry, left over from adventures in homemade pasta making. By the time I was in Whole Foods, standing in front of a wall full of barley flour, oat bran flour, and milled flax seeds, the light bulb had gone off. I grabbed the closest packet of Dry Active Yeast I could find, and it was on.
Back at my place, I set up shop for an afternoon of bread baking. Now, when I say an “afternoon,” I should clarify – you won’t actually be mixing, kneading, and pounding dough for three hours. But, there is a good amount of wait time built-in – the yeast need time to eat the sugars in the dough, giving off gas bubbles that cause the dough to rise and creating the airy, fluffy texture that makes the best doughs so wonderful. So you’ll have to stick that out. Start to finish, you should block off about 3 and a half hours. It’s okay. It’s a good time to go read that book you’ve been trying to find time for, or apply for that dream job you’ve had your eye on. Just two very hypothetical examples. Moving on…
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 1/3 cup whole golden flaxseeds
- 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 package active dry yeast, (2 1/4 teaspoons)
- 1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
Making the dough for homemade bread is extremely simple – the hardest part, in fact, is just having patience to take your time and give each step of the process the attention it deserves. To start, take 1/4 cup of your flax seeds and grind them in a food processor or coffee bean grinder. I ground mine with a handheld immersion blender (again, lack of proper tools forces one to get creative), and they just wouldn’t mill down to a flour consistency. This actually worked out well, though, as the grainy texture of the seeds it gave the bread extra heartiness – don’t let small details like this hold you back, just roll with them!
Next, add the lukewarm water and tablespoon of honey to a bowl and stir until the honey is dissolved. Mmmmm, honey. Probably eat a little too because, really, how could you not?
Here’s the fun part (if you’re a science nerd like me, at least). You sprinkle the dry yeast into the water, and it comes alive. Well, it actually already was alive, but dormant – and once you add it to the sweet water, the yeast become active and feed on the sugars in the honey, releasing alcohol (ethanol) and gases (carbon dioxide) and converting some of the starch in the bread flour into sugars. If it weren’t for this CO2, bread wouldn’t have the fluffy, airy texture we have come to associate with it – it would be dense, like a cake, or flat, like matzoh (unleavened bread, anyone?).
The gases leaven the bread and integrate pockets of air throughout the fibers of the dough to create loftiness, and convert even more starchy flour into sugary flavor. As such, the longer the yeast is left to do its work and ferment, the more richness and complexity in flavor you can achieve in your breads. In fact, a process called “retardation” is often employed in more complex bread baking that involves refrigerating dough while it rises to slow down the yeast’s activity and allow fermentation to occur more slowly, thus converting starch to sugar at a slower rate. When the dough is warmed and the growth of the yeast takes off, there is plenty of sugar present for the yeast and an excess of sugar to sweeten the bread. Ahhhh, the magic of culinary science.
But back to our feature presentation. You want to let the yeast hang out and munch away in the water until it starts to create bubbles (CO2), which takes anywhere from five to ten minutes. It’s hard to capture this action via photo, but here’s what mine looked like when it was ready to go. See the teeny tiny bubbles in the middle?
Once your yeast is ready, stir in one cup of all-purpose flour, the salt, and the ground flax seeds. With a wooden spoon, stir vigorously in one direction until the batter is smooth. Think this is giving you an arm workout? Just wait…
Slowly add in the whole wheat flour, a little at a time to keep the dough smooth and clump-free, until it becomes difficult to stir. Then stir a little more, because it becomes very difficult to stir early on, and you sort of have to push through that. If you have a Kitchen Aid with a dough hook, more power to you. Once most of the flour is incorporated, you should have a shaggy ball of sticky dough that looks like this:
Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface, and begin to knead. Use flour liberally to coat your hands, the dough, anything that will help prevent sticking and the dough falling apart. I kept integrating both whole wheat and all-purpose flour, kneading until the dough was smooth and elastic, about 10 to 12 minutes. A note about kneading: while technically there’s no one “right” way to do this, there is a good preferred technique that I picked up at ICE. This includes pressing the dough down firmly with the heel of your right hand, folding it over with your left hand, rotating it 90 degrees clockwise, and repeating. This integrates air into the dough and keeps the application of pressure consistent. It just plain old works.
Place the dough in a large bowl oiled liberally with non-stick spray. Turn the dough to coat it well and cover with plastic wrap. Then stick the bowl somewhere warm and dry, and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Then you’ll having something that looks like this:
Woohoo! It rose! This is a very exciting moment. Now for the second really fun part – punching it down. Remove the plastic wrap and give the dough several hard punches to force the air out of captivity. Between all the kneading and punching, bread baking is really a good way to work out some stress! Anyhow, after you’re done with all your punching you’ll be left with a deflated disk that looks like…
Roll the disk up into a log, and place it in an oiled 5 x 9 loaf pan, with the seam of the dough facing down. Cover with saran wrap again, and let rise for about 45 minutes, or until the dough is peaking the top of the pan…
We’re just about ready to bake, so any last finishing touches should go down now. I topped my loaf with some of the remaining golden flax seeds and some whole oats. Come on, after all that hard work, you at least want it to look pretty! Press these down into the dough a bit so that they don’t just fall right off the top of your loaf when it’s done baking.
Then, into a 400 degree oven this goes for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 and continue to bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until the bread is golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Then remove from the pan onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before slicing.
Take a minute and revel in this. You just baked your own bread. Grocery stores, be damned. You are one bad ass cookie.
Ohhhhh yeahhhhhh. Heavenly. It took all my willpower to not immediately begin slicing and gobbling this up, but remember – patience is key to bread baking. So I waited. And waited. I went out and came back and waited some more. I took another picture of it because it looked so rediculously good.
Finally, the bread was 100% cool, and I sliced it. This is tricky work, and I definitely recommend investing in a good serrated bread knife, which I did not have, and therefore ended up with some extremely “rustic” looking slices. But, not to worry.
No matter how you slice it (nerdy pun intended), this bread is unbelievably delicious. It’s thick and flavorful and wonderful. In less than 24 hours already I’ve tried bits of this topped with Raspberry-Lemon jam, or Neuchâtel cheese, or even humus with sliced tomato and sea salt. All taste amazing upon this bread. It’s moist, hearty, nutty, and best of all, pretty damn healthy! No milk, eggs or butter, tons of fiber and whole wheat, so you can’t go wrong. And if I can bake it without burning it, you know it’s gotta be easy. So go ahead, friends – get baked!