For several years I have, in principle, been baking bread every week. You may guess from the phrase “in princple” that I have not actually been baking bread every week. The idea is to bake every Sunday so we have bread for the week’s breakfast and lunches, but sometimes I’ve kept up with it and sometimes I haven’t. My problem, in essence, has been finding a recipe I can make every week that meets my family’s needs rather than my foodie dreams.
If I want to have homemade bread around all the time — and I do — I need baking to be a habit. But if it’s a habit, it isn’t exciting any longer. I want to experiment and try new recipes, but then I sit around Sunday morning thinking, what am I going to bake today? And some weeks, one more decision to be made is enough of an impediment to action that evening comes and I’m still breadless.
Here’s what I need from a bread recipe:
- The bread has to be both tasty enough and simple enough that I’m willing to eat it every day (and the rest of my family has to like it too).
- The bread has to make good sandwiches for at least three days, because that’s how we eat most of it.
- At least half the flour has to be whole wheat if we’re going to eat it every day.
- The recipe has to be simple enough that I don’t need to refer to a card or a book and that I can work it into whatever else I happen to be doing (or not doing) around the house on a given day.
- It can’t require any special ingredients that I don’t always keep around.
- My KitchenAid mixer has to be able to handle the kneading. I could wax poetic about the joys of kneading bread, but really, it’s just one more thing I have to do.
I’m not looking for “artisan bread,” in other words. It’s great that people can bake fantastic baguettes in their homes, but that isn’t what I need. Good sourdough is less a recipe than a lifestyle, and I need to be able to skip a week now and again. And, you know, as much as I enjoy chewy, hearty bread with a crackling crust, I’m not European, and I don’t aspire to be. Sumus quod sumus and all.
So here’s what I’ve come up with, after a good deal of experiment and refinement. I find that it’s great immediately on Sunday afternoon, makes good sandwiches through Wednesday, needs to be toasted o Thursday, and is a little stale but still usable for toast on Friday. Here’s why it works:
- Honey is hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts water on a molecular level, and therefore keeps the bread from going stale too quickly. It also has antimicrobial properties.
- Letting most of the whole wheat flour sit in a sponge for an extra hour or two gives it time to soak up moisture and soften, so the bread isn’t grainy.
- The yogurt tenderizes the loaf, further compensating for the graininess of the whole wheat. It also adds flavor.
For the sponge
- 1 cup water, warmed to just above room temperature
- 1 tablespoon yeast (I use bread machine yeast because it’s cheaper by weight than the little packets)
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
For the bread
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup whole-milk yogurt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing bowls and pans
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
- about 3 cups bread flour
- 2 medium loaf pans
- a large bowl
- a large, sturdy wooden spoon
- a KitchenAid mixer with dough hook, or your clean hands
- Making the sponge. Stir the yeast into the warm water until it dissolves. Stir in the honey, then the 2 cups of whole wheat flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set on the counter for an hour or two, until the sponge is big and bubbly and looks, well, like a sponge. The timing isn’t precise.
- Making the dough. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup water, the yogurt, salt, wheat germ, the remaining 1 cup whole wheat flour, and 2 cups of the bread flour. At this point I install the dough hook on my KitchenAid, and add in enough of the remaining 1 cup of bread flour so that the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. Sometimes it takes a little more than a cup. If you’re kneading by hand, you want the dough to stay moist but not sticky. Don’t add too much flour; the last cup of whole wheat will soak up moisture as the dough rises. Then knead about 5 minutes by machine or, I would guess, about 10 minutes by hand, until the dough is smooth and resilient.
- First rise. Clean out the bowl, oil it lightly, and place the dough back in it. Cover with the plastic wrap and set on the counter for 1–3 hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is, until the dough is doubled in bulk.
- Shaping the loaves. Divide the dough in half and shape into loaves. I do this by flattening the dough with my fingertips into a broad rectangle, then rolling it up from each end, pinching as I go to seal it, and finally tucking the ends under and pinching them. This is far easier to do than to explain, and there are other ways.
- Second rise. Lightly oil the pans, set the loaves in them, and cover the loaves with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise until they have cleared the top of the pans and are nicely rounded.
- Baking. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 360 F. (Note: I have a convection oven. If you have a conventional oven, you will probably want to try this at 375.) When the loaves are ready, give each a quick slash lengthwise with a sharp knife. Bake them for 25 minutes (probably 30 in a conventional oven).
- Denouement. Turn the loaves out of the pans onto racks to cool. Most books will tell you not to slice bread until it’s cool because you’ll destroy the delicate crumb or whatever, but ignore them. As soon as you can handle the loaf, slice off a crust, smear it with butter and honey, and eat it. Repeat as needed.