Monday, April 1, 2013

Spongy Bread

I have this little book that I have guarded and treasured for a few decades now.  It is The Basic Book of Baking Bread by Geraldine Duncann.

ISBN 0-932824-06-4

It was published in 1979 by Celebration Press and I suspect it had a very limited printing run.  It is all of 10 pages and about 5 by 4 inches in size.  But Ms. Duncann has a kind and gentle writing style and some fun recipes.

As an introduction to the book she writes, "This is a collection of recipes that I have gathered in my travels about the British Isles."  What makes her recipes interesting for an historical cooking blog is that they all use the sponge method. Making a sponge for your bread was probably originally designed to ensure that the yeast you are using is actually working, something we don't have to think about these days with modern food science backing us up.

A sponge is basically a liquid-y mix of flour, water, salt, sweetener, fat, and yeast that you set aside for a few hours until it is bubbly and thick.  Then you add more flour and knead until you have a dough that is shaped into loaves.  It takes more time than today's quick process but can develop more flavor.

I decided to try the one entitled "Essex Harvest Bread".  Her introduction for this recipe is amusing:

           One day last fall when I was crawling about amongst the nettles, chicken dung,
     muck, and cow pats of an exceptionally decrepit East Anglia barnyard
     photographing  the worm-eaten foundations, joists, joinings, dragon beams,
     rabbets (the wooden kind), and dadoes of a particularly fascinating (in a gnat's
     posterior  -- you seen the worm-eaten underpinnings of one barn, you seen them
     all) 15th century barley barn (why a barley barn should be of any significant
     difference from an oat, lentil, wheat, hop, millet, bean, bracken or cannabis barn
     I shall never know), but anyway, one day whilst I was doing all this for a particular
     study, and feeling rather sorry for myself, and being in mud up to my unmentionable,
     I got myself up and I drove to the nearest pub.  ...  I ordered a plowman's lunch,
     and to my delight instead of the usual good but quite standard slice of bakery
     white bread, there was a chunk of this fine and hefty concoction.

          I asked the publican about it and he said that a lady in the village baked it once
     a week and had for over 50 years.

With a description like this, how could I not give it a try?

Essex Harvest Bread

Make a sponge of 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup of cooked cracked wheat, 1 cup rolled oats, 1 cup of rye flour.  Add 4 cups of water, 2 cups of honey, salt and yeast and oil enough.  To this add 2 cups of grated carrots or 1 cup of carrots and 1 cup of chopped apple.  Stir well and leave to rise.

Add enough whole wheat four to make a soft dough and knead well.  Form into large oblong loaves and place on a baking sheet.  Paint the tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with rolled oats.  Slash the tops with a sharp knife and leave to rise.

Bake in a moderate oven till done.

My Notes

I didn't have any cooked cracked wheat, but I did have some uncooked wheat berries, so I put them in a pot, added about four times their volume in water, brought them to a boil, and simmered them for 20 minutes.  Then I drained them and added them to the flour mixture.  This made them tender and just a little bit chewy, which I liked.

At the beginning of her book she mentions the ratios of salt, yeast, and oil to use in a sponge.  Following that, I added 1/2 cup oil, 2 tsp salt, and 1 tsp yeast.  I chose to use 1 cup of chopped carrots and 1 cup of chopped (unpeeled) apple.

Filled about half of the bowl
 It was a cool afternoon so I put the sponge into a slightly warm oven to proof.  After about 2.5 hours, it had increased in volume by half and was visibly bubbling.  

Actively bubbling and much thicker than before

I put it into my mixer bowl and started adding whole wheat flour.  After 8 cups (added 1/2 cup at a time; each addition was mixed in thoroughly before the next), the dough was showing signs of getting stiff enough to form a loaf.  It was also too much dough for my mixer -- the gooey stuff kept trying to climb out of the bowl and over the dough hook.

So I piled it all up on the flour-dusted counter and kneaded in another cup of flour (that's 9 cups total).  The dough was stretchy and holding its shape well and so I deemed it ready for the loaf pans.  Yes, I put them in pans instead of free-standing loaves so I could get sandwich-sized slices.

All the dough in one big ball
 After painting, sprinkling, and slashing the tops, I set the loaves aside for their second rising.  It took about 1 hour, 15 minutes for them to get close to double in size because of the cool temperature in my kitchen.

Brushed, sprinkled, and slashed

I baked them for 20 minutes at 425 degrees F, which was too hot and caused the bottoms to scorch a little (grrrrrr!).  I should have listened to Ms. Duncann who suggested using a 350 degree oven. 

Oh, the smell of freshly baked bread!

The Verdict  Success!  Oh my, this bread is tasty.  It is pretty light for a whole wheat bread and the flavor is rich with the wheat berries, honey, carrots, and apple.  I think it would be an insult to the bread to spread it with butter.  Just a light toasting to bring out the honey flavor (and make the wheat berries taste a little like popcorn!) and that is enough.  I started eating one loaf; the others will be frozen for future munching.

Definitely worth a repeat.  One aspect I liked about this bread is that it really used up a lot of my flour varieties.  I was getting worried that they were getting old, despite being frozen, and I was happy to see them go into bread instead of into the trash.

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