In response

Sometimes, bakers get a lucky stroke. They make an absolutely wonderful loaf of bread, parade it around like a show off, and forget about it for many months. Then, they are asked to repeat the experience.

This, I'm afraid, is when the bubble bursts. They have only made it once, they try again, and the results are never quite exactly the same. Particularly with bread. Because it involves flour, and gluten, and yeast, and warmth, and draftiness, and all other manner of hazards, bread is difficult to repeat.

I would know, because I tried today. I tried making the whole wheat baguette I so happily paraded back in August, and was asked for advice about recently. I tried the recipe I'd had such success with before, only to find that this time, it was a flop. I retraced my steps, tried to remember the keys to my happiness, and this is what I've come up with after baking another slightly better loaf this afternoon. First of all, the type of whole wheat matters. I buy mine from Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater Maine, mainly because it's the closest reliable source I've found, but also because it's very good. It's especially good for baking, because it's a hard red wheat. Hard wheat is better for yeast baking, soft wheat is better for things like pancakes and banana bread. Still, I use it for both.

Secondly, it helps to add a bit of gluten flour to whole wheat bread. Gluten forms proteins that make bread springy and stretchy, and there's less of it in whole wheat flour than white. The general rule is about a tablespoon per cup, but don't add too much: I've found it gives the bread sort of a gross, fake, Wonder loafy-taste.

Then, there is the balance of salts and sweets. Salty, oily ingredients slow down rising yeast, while sugar and honey cause it to get a bit out of hand. So if you cut out the salt, be sure to cut down on sugar, too, otherwise your bread will rise to quickly and then grandly deflate.

There is also temperature to consider. If the liquid in a recipe isn't warm enough, the bread will take forever to rise. On the other hand, if it's too hot, it will kill the yeast. Same with the oven temperature. While "warm" is a very wide range, as a general rule things should stay below 110 degrees. Any hotter, and a major yeast die-off might take place.

Finally, there is always the option to add a little bit of white. The perfect whole wheat loaf is a very, very lofty goal, and though I had a lucky strike, since then I've had better luck with at least a little bit of white flour in the mix. One day, I very, very much hope to recreate the loaf I so happily happened upon this summer (maybe it was the warm house? the humidity in the air? a particularly intoxicating dab of butter and jam?) but until then, I plan to keep contented with this. Also, in the event of disaster, there is always this to make things taste good:

I'm sorry I can't be more specific. But I'm going to keep trying, and eventually, I promise, I will find a sure and steady way to recreate the perfect loaf. And you will be the first to know.


I think a good way to look at moving to whole wheat is to start out with a ratio of one cup whole wheat to 2 cups white (with 1 tablespoon gluten flour) and very slowly begin to turn the tables. Then, once you master the yeast, the temperature, the gluten, and all that, you can adjust the flours to taste, and eventually move to almost all whole wheat. At least that's what I plan to do.

Makes 2 loaves

1 and 1/4 very warm water
1 tablespooon yeast
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon gluten flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Warm up oven. Combine yeast, water, and honey in a medium mixing bowl. Let stand 5 minutes until bubbly. Stir in all purpose flour and salt, and mix vigorously, until smooth. Add remaining whole wheat flour and gluten flour. Knead for 10 to 15 minutes, or until dough is elastic and smooth. Put in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in the warm oven for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Punch down dough and separate into two balls. Roll each into a 5 by 12 inch rectangle, then roll along the side to form a long, thin log. Pinch ends shut, slash diagonally several times with a sharp knife, and arrange loaves on a greased baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise again for about an hour. Preheat oven to 450 degrees, placing a tray of water on the bottom shelf. Bake loaves 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Enjoy hot, with butter.


Jim Gerritsen said...

Hi Elspeth,
Thanks for mentioning our farm. Maine used to be a big producer of wheat and we can do it again. Besides wheat is a fun and satifying crop to grow. We plant it as a rotation crop the year after we grow our main crop of organic seed potatoes.
Jim Gerritsen
Wood Prairie Farm
Bridgewater, Maine

Elspeth said...

My pleasure! It is very good wheat...we appreciate all your hard work.

D.A. said...

Hi Elspeth,

I like this method of rising in the warm oven. I am wondering if you are meaning to have the oven set to a specific low temperature, or that it should be warm being an insulated enclosure?



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