The Staff of Life

I love bread. I love eating bread, kneading bread, baking bread, buttering the hot-from-the-oven heel of the bread. People sometimes ask how we feed this large family of ours. The truth is that we bake a lot of bread. Banana bread, pumpkin bread, whole wheat bread, multi-grain bread, raisin bread, zucchini bread, coconut bread, apple-oatmeal bread, pita bread, pizza crust, pancakes, biscuits, muffins, waffles, tortillas—you name it and we have probably made it. I have spent a lot of time reading both sides of the bread debate (about whether it’s good or bad for you) and I have decided that home-made, from-scratch breads are fine for our family.

In order to do this kind of baking, you have to have the right ingredients and the right tools. We carry about 200 pounds of grain under the starboard aft berth (either in vacuum-sealed THRIVE containers or in 5-gallon pails with Gamma-Seal lids to keep moisture out). About once a month, I go rummaging under the bed and refill my quart-size mason jars with red and white hard wheat (for yeast breads), spelt (for quick breads/pastries), 9-grain mix (for cereal or multi-grain bread), and oat groats (for cereal, oatmeal bread, and pancakes). I then use my Vita-mix dry pitcher to grind the desired amount of grain into flour. It takes about a minute, and produces a fine flour with some texture left—not the super-fine you get in store-bought varieties. If you run it for less than a minute, you get a coarser grind, which I might want for porridge, for example. For pizza dough or burger buns, I usually go with a half-and-half dough, using white and wheat flour in equal amounts to get a fluffier, lighter bread. So I carry some white flour, as well. I use honey to lightly sweeten, and sea salt, as well as yeast, buttermilk or yogurt (which I can culture from fresh or powdered milk), and butter or olive oil. And that’s it. No long lists of ingredients with dough conditioners and preservatives to keep the bread from molding. I hand-knead, and bake in cast-iron pans which are non-toxic and non-stick and produce a great crust.

Bread is emblematic of our way of life. It is simple and self-sufficing, but not easy. It is flexible, can be made in many different ways, and is affected by environmental changes, more art than science. It is warm and welcoming, and, broken together, forms the center of a table of friends. In short, it is good for the body and the soul.

Note for those interested in milling their own flour: we have both a Vita-Mix (2 hp blender) and a Family Grain Mill from Pleasant Hill Grain (hand grinder). The Whisper Mill is another good brand. Whole grains can be ordered from online purveyors (I use THRIVE or Tropical Traditions) or co-ops like Wheat Montana or Bread Beckers, and purchased or ordered in bulk from health food stores. Grinding, then soaking the grain in an acidic solution (like yogurt or buttermilk) increases the availability of nutrients in the bread, and also gives whole-wheat bread a really good texture. I order yeast by the pound online. My recipe follows.

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Tanya’s Whole-Wheat Yogurt Bread
Prep time: 24+ hours     Makes: 2 8” loaves
Ingredients:
2 cups hard red wheat berries + 2 cups hard white wheat berries OR 5 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup yogurt OR buttermilk OR kefir
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
Instructions:
Grind 2 cups of hard red and 2 cups of hard white wheat berries and combine in a glass bowl, setting aside about a cup of flour (4 cups of berries should make about 5 cups of flour). Melt butter and add to flours. Add yogurt and water and mix until a soft dough forms. Cover the bowl and leave on the counter (at room temperature) overnight, or for 6-8 hours. After soaking, add yeast and honey to warm water in a glass measuring cup and stir. Add salt and 1/2 cup of reserved flour to dough. Add yeast mixture and knead on floured surface until smooth ball forms, about 10 minutes, adding water or flour as necessary until the texture is “right” (not too wet, not too dry, tacky but not sticky). Place dough in covered bowl to rise. Rise until doubled, about an hour. Knead again, briefly, and divide dough in half. Shape each half into a loaf and sprinkle with/roll in flour and place in oiled 8×4” loaf pan (ceramic, glass, or cast iron work well). Rise, covered lightly with a towel, until loaves reach top of pans, about 30 minutes, then bake side by side for 35 minutes in a 350˚ oven. Remove from pans immediately and cool on cooling racks, covering loaves with a towel. Use within 3 days (or use one loaf and freeze the other).
Hints and tricks:
Brick-like bread results from a dough that is too dry, from under-kneading, and from old yeast. Yeast should be stored in the fridge, and not for more than six months. Dough should be soft enough to stick to your hands, but not so sticky that it leaves residue on your fingers. Knead the dough until it is stretchy—one test is to take a small ball of dough and stretch it into a “window” of dough. If you can stretch it thin enough to see light through, without it tearing, then you have kneaded enough. Bread that is done baking will sound hollow when thumped.