“Cooking is an exercise for both the mind and the senses…”
-Laura Shapiro, Something From the Oven
I’m currently reading a book on how WWII affected the cooking styles of American housewives in the ’50′s. In it was a paragraph that explained how American housewives cooked up until the turn of the 20th century. The cookbook as we know it was quite uncommon, if it existed at all. Most cooking and baking was done intuitively. A recipe was passed down when a daughter watched her mother prepare meals. There was no such thing as 1-1/2 cups of this and 2-1/4 teaspoons of that. Standardized measurement wasn’t used in the home pre-1900. One simply cooked by feel. How heavy a handful of flour feels, how a spoonful of sugar fits in the cup of your hand. Regular tea cups and silverware were the measuring implements of choice.
This all got me thinking.
First, I thought about my Great Grandmother’s bread recipe. My mother watched her Grandmother make bread, she threw a bit of this and a cupful of that into a bowl, baking the way she was taught by her mother perhaps. Out came a fine dough that she kneaded by hand for seven minutes. As Great Grandmother put the ingredients in, my mother took them out and measured them, thereby standardizing a recipe that had been used for generations, yet had never been recorded. My mother changed the sugar to honey and the water to milk to add more protein for her growing girls. I now have that recipe, and it’s committed to memory. It will always be my standby and also my favorite. Of all the bread recipes I’ve ever used, this one always tasted the best to me. Maybe it is because of all the memories of rainy spring mornings in the kitchen kneading bread with my mom and sister. Stirring the dough with a wooden spoon, kneading, and placing it in a bowl covered with a dish towel on the furnace to rise. Then making one big loaf, and a tray of little buns that my sister and I shaped ourselves and ate warm out of the oven.
Next, I wondered: Can I bake without measuring my ingredients? Can I pay close attention to how everything feels and tastes and make a respectable loaf of bread? I do this already with Great Grandma’s bread. I’ve made it hundreds of times and can feel when it’s right. But how about a new bread? Can I bake intuitively? I decided to try.
The next afternoon I set to work. I had made bagels the night before and had a whole pot of water with malt syrup left over. I pulled my sourdough starter out of the fridge and fed it some molasses, a cup of the reserved water and a cup of flour. I left it on the counter and took the kids to the park. When I returned I found it happy and thriving. I put one third in the fridge and kept about 2 cups on the counter to grow a little more. About an hour later I set to making the dough. I put half of the starter mix in the mixing bowl, added a half cup of the reserved water, approximately 5 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, and about 1/4 cup of butter. As I started the mixer I noticed I needed a little more starter so I added a splash. Then I added a bit more and ended up using about 2 cups of starter, more than I had expected to use. The dough was satiny smooth, I had high hopes. After rising, punching down and dividing it in two pans I couldn’t wait to bake and eat it. It was about 11pm by this point and I was dog tired. My dear husband agreed to stay up and wait for the bread to bake. I fell asleep to the smell of baking bread. I woke up with a start a little after midnight and bolted out of bed and into the kitchen. There on the cutting board were two lovely loaves of sourdough bread. I wasted no time cutting into one and smearing the still warm slice with butter and creamy raw honey.
Let’s just say it is the best bread I have ever made. I took a few pictures at midnight- so excuse their quality and lack of natural light!
Here’s my Great Grandma’s recipe:
Nana’s Bread (adapted by Mom)
makes 2 loaves
2 cups lukewarm water (or milk)
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar (or honey)
1/3 cup oil
1 tsp salt
4 -1/2 (+/-) cups all-purpose flour
In a large mixing bowl, combine the warm water or milk and the yeast. Let sit for 5 minutes to activate the yeast. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until combined. Turn out onto floured board and knead for 7 minutes (or do it all in your stand mixer with the dough hook). Place in a greased bowl and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size (about 1 hour). Turn out onto a lightly floured board and punch the dough down. Divide into two loaf pans and let rise for about 1 hour. Bake in a 4oo degree oven for 35 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool on a wire rack.
This recipe is easily modified, I’ve omitted the egg and had good results. I’ve made it with half whole wheat flour. I’ve added oats and wheat germ and flax seed. I’ve used butter instead of oil. I’ve used molasses and maple syrup and brown sugar. Try for yourself, if it doesn’t work make some bread crumbs and fry something for dinner…(done that too!)