When I tell people I make bread, they inevitably ask if I use a bread machine. That's like asking if I buy my pie crust in the freezer aisle. No. Never.
For me, home-baked bread is more than a recipe. The process ties me to my Swedish great-grandmother, to my ancestors.
The first bread my mother taught me to bake was Swedish rye, a bread that she serves on Christmas Eve as part of a traditional meal handed down from her Swedish grandmother. Filled with molasses, shredded carrots, orange zest, and bran, this rye bread is sweet and filling and tastes even better with a good slathering of butter.
The multiple steps and hours of preparation involved in making bread may intimidate some, especially since bread recipes can fail, leaving the baker with nothing to show for the work.
But with the "super-active" yeast packets available in stores today, I think it's harder to mess up. When I was baking bread in college 10 years ago, my yeast never bubbled out of the bowl like it does now. That yeast is active, manufacturers have made sure of that.
Nonetheless, as my mother always said: "Yeast is a living thing. Treat it that way." If you don't, you'll be disappointed.
To prepare yeast, put it in a bowl with warm water, sugar, and, in this recipe, some ginger. My mother taught me to put my wrist under the water to feel the temperature, not too cold, not too hot. "Like you're getting bath water ready for a baby."
So, I've learned to carefully warm the water so it's just right for the yeast. Then, I drop sugar into the water to feed it.
The other key to successful bread is kneading. I once overkneaded dough for cinnamon rolls and ended up with a ball of rubber. Rye bread is more forgiving than pastry or piecrust dough, which you want to handle as little as possible.
Recipes call for a range in the amount of flour because you may not need it all. If your dough is soft and workable but no longer tacky, you've incorporated enough flour, and it's ready. If you don't knead it enough, and it's still sticky and floppy when you set it aside to rise, your bread will fall flat. If you knead it until it's stiff, your bread will have a hard crust and be very dry. Save it for French toast, and try again.
If you're kneading by hand, as I do, it's pretty hard to overwork the bread because it's tiring. I knead until my shoulders and forearms burn from the work, thinking how women, at one time, did this every day. When the dough holds its shape and doesn't flatten to the surface when you let go, it's ready.
Once you've put all your ingredients together and kneaded your dough, put it in a greased bowl, cover it with a clean kitchen towel, and place it away from drafts. My mother would whisper as she put the bowl aside, like the yeast really was a baby ready for bed after its bath. "Now we leave it alone," she'd say, "and let it rise."
Once it rises to twice its size, punch down the dough, knead it a tiny bit more, and shape it into loaves. A caramel-orange smell will fill your house as this hearty bread bakes. As the bread begins to look ready, tap two fingers on the bottom center of the loaf. It's done when it sounds hollow.
Of course, not all breads take this much effort. Quick breads, like banana or pumpkin, add something extra to a Sunday brunch, and they're as easy as baking cookies. Combine wet and dry ingredients, pour into a loaf pan, and bake.
I like this lavender tea bread for something a little different, and it pairs beautifully with tea. It's less sweet than some quick breads, and the lavender tastes slightly bitter, like grapefruit or citrus zest. The recipe calls for icing, but I've never bothered. I like bread with less mess. For the best flavor, chop up your lavender flowers rather than using them whole. Don't burn the milk - use a very small pan. And don't stir too much or this bread will toughen.
As long as you are making your own bread, why not go all in and try your hand at making some lovely accompaniments?
Pumpkin butter is an easy spread to make this time of year, especially if you use canned pumpkin. You can also use sugar pumpkins, but it's a lot of work. This recipe uses maple sugar to sweeten, and it's divine.
Pears are plentiful this time of year, and if you add some fresh rosemary, the combination makes a sophisticated preserve. Chopping the pears is the most time-consuming part. Make sure to sprinkle fresh fruit protector or a little lemon juice on the pieces as you go. Also, instead of using rosemary leaves, I put two big fronds of rosemary into the preserves as they cook and remove them before pouring the preserves into jars. A few leaves will remain, but it enhances the rosemary taste, an alteration I prefer.
Makes 7 half-pints
4 to 6 pounds firm, ripe Bartlett or Bosc pears (about 10 medium)
3 cups sugar
1 cup honey
2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons snipped fresh rosemary
1. Core and peel pears. Finely chop enough pears to measure 8 cups. In a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot, combine pears, sugar, honey, lemon peel, and lemon juice. Bring to boiling, stirring until sugar dissolves. Stir in rosemary. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until mixture sheets off a metal spoon, stirring often. Remove from heat. Quickly skim off foam with a metal spoon.
2. Ladle hot preserves into hot, sterilized half-pint canning jars, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids.
3. Process filled jars in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes (start timing when water returns to boiling). Remove jars from canner; cool on wire racks.
Per tablespoon serving: 44 calories, no protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Spiced Pumpkin Butter
Makes about 4 half-pints
31/2 cups pumpkin puree (see note) or two 15-ounce cans pumpkin
11/4 cups pure maple syrup
1/2 cup apple juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. In 5-quart heavy pot, combine all ingredients. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring frequently, 25 minutes or until thick. (If mixture spatters, reduce heat to medium-low).
2. Ladle into sterilized half-pint canning jars, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. Cook for 30 minutes. Seal and label.
3. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or transfer to freezer containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace, and freeze for up to 6 months.
Note: To make pumpkin puree, preheat oven to 375. Scrub two 21/2- to 3-pound pie pumpkins thoroughly. Cut pumpkins into 5-inch square pieces, discarding stems. Remove seeds and fibrous strings. Arrange pumpkin pieces in a single layer, skin sides up, in a foil-lined shallow baking pan. Roast, covered, for 1 to 11/2 hours or until tender. When cool enough to handle, scoop pulp from rind. Place pulp, in batches if necessary, in a blender or food processor. Cover and blend or process until smooth. Place puree in a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double thickness of 100 percent cotton cheesecloth. Let stand for 1 hour to drain. Press lightly to remove any additional liquid; discard liquid.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 35 calories, no protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, no fat, no cholesterol, 17 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Lavender Tea Bread
Makes 1 loaf of bread
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers, finely chopped or 3-4 tablespoons fresh lavender flowers
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Powdered sugar glaze (optional)
1. Grease a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan; preheat oven to 325.
2. Heat milk with lavender almost to a boil, then let steep until cool.
3. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, cream butter gradually. Add sugar, then eggs, one at a time, beating until light and fluffy. Add flour mixture alternately with lavender milk in three different batches.
4. Mix until batter is just blended. Do not overbeat. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool.
5. When completely cool, if desired, ice with a powdered sugar glaze made with 3 tablespoons milk and enough powdered sugar to make a thick but runny paste. Garnish with a spring of fresh lavender around cake, or sprinkle additional finely chopped lavender on glaze before it dries.
Per serving (based on 12 and without glaze): 215 calories, 3 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fat, 47 milligrams cholesterol, 346 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Swedish Rye Bread
Makes 3 loaves
3 cups hot water
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup oil
1 1/2 cups bran cereal or Bran Buds
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 cups instant dry milk
3 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup shredded carrots
2 tablespoons orange peel
2 packages dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2 cups medium rye flour
7 1/2 to 8 cups white flour
1. In a large bowl, combine water, molasses, oil, cereal, brown sugar, dry milk, salt, carrots, and orange peel.
2. In a separate bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar and ginger. Let stand 3 minutes.
3. Spoon flour into measuring cup. Add yeast, rye flour, and 3 cups white flour to the yeast mixture. Then, gradually stir in the white flour in batches. After a few batches, you will have to work in the remainder of the white flour (about 11/2 to 2 cups flour) by kneading it with your hands. Knead until the dough is soft.
4. Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover with a clean dish towel, and let it rise until it has doubled.
5. Shape into three loaves and bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Brush with butter.
Per serving (based on 45 servings): 161 calories, 5 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 208 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter at @joellefarrell.