Those of you who follow me will know that I occasionally write about medieval foods, the preparation of which is one of my hobbies. Today I’m posting about a different kind of history, a personal one.
I have enjoyed baking since I was a teenager. It was the one culinary art my mother had not completely and thoroughly mastered, so there was a niche for me to create something that was not all-together inferior to what I was used to having set before me. I have retained a passion for baking, and for bread in particular. Last Spring, when I was home, my Oma, gave me something very special. A cookbook, published in 1948 as a fundraiser by the Pierian Study Club of San Saba, Texas. (I had to look up Pierian Study Clubs on Google. They seem to have been a series of women’s clubs in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s devoted to giving women an intellectual outlet in a time when higher education for women was difficult to come by. The Pierian Study Club of San Saba still exists, BTW.)
In this cookbook was a recipe contributed by my grandmother’s grandmother. My grandmother was largely raised by her grandmother and she told me of watching her grandmother every week making the bread. My grandmother was something of a hoyden I believe, and never learned to make the bread herself, but still she sat with her grandmother, in their kitchen and absorbed the tradition. My grandmother never did bake the bread until the afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, and then she went home, and using this cookbook, made the bread that had been so much a part of her childhood. It was her way of staying connected.
I was grateful for the gift, and I took the book home, but I set it aside. This year has been so very busy and frequently taxing. Then, not long after she had given this to me, my grandmother fell and injured herself. She is recovering, but she can no longer live independently. I didn’t want to wait until her funeral to start making this bread, so when I went to visit last week, I made a loaf, and took it to her. The first bread I ever baked was the plain white bread recipe out of the Better Homes and Gardens Bread cookbook. This recipe is similar, though the exact proportions are slightly different. Like many recipes before the modern era, the instructions are a little vague, assuming that those making use of them, will have a fundamental knowledge of the craft. I made a few modifications and used updated techniques.
Yeast cake is no longer readily available, so I substituted 1 package of active dry yeast. I dissolved it in warm water. I have little rituals I usually follow when baking bread. I start by turning on my oven to the lowest setting (~170F) to get it nice and warm for rising the bread in. Once it comes up to temperature, I turn it off and leave the door cracked just a bit. I sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let it soften just a bit. Then I sprinkle the sugar over the top and let that cause the yeast to sink below the surface. Once the yeast has activated it will rise to the surface again.
Next I scalded the milk in the microwave (so much faster and less messy than doing it on the stove top.) I add the shortening (vegetable) to the hot milk, causing the milk to melt the shortening and the shortening to cool the milk.
I add the salt to this mixture and then add room temperature water. All this together is cool enough to allow me to handle the jar (and cool enough not to kill the yeast) but warm enough to give the yeast a head start. I add the liquid to the yeast mixture in my Kitchen Aide. The recipe doesn’t tell you how much flour to add, just gives you another common dough to compare yours to. I like to add enough flour that the dough starts to pull away from the sides, but is still a bit sticky to the touch (About 5 cups, give or take.)
One of the things I like about this recipe is that it is quick. In the warm oven it only takes about 45 minutes for the first rising. Bread aficionados will tell you that a long rise allows the flavors to develop better, and in a sourdough, or a french bread, they are probably right, but this bread is simple and tasty, even without the complexity.
Once it has doubled in volume, punch it down and divide it up. The original recipe says one loaf and a bunch of rolls. I wasn’t crazy about this as a roll, I think it makes a better sandwich loaf, so I divide it into three 8×4 pans. I prefer these to the more standard 9x5s because I think they make a rational sized sandwich. You could do two 9x5s if you prefer, though the dough might be a bit much for that.Rise for 30 more minutes or until the dough is just a little higher than the top of the pans. Bake at 350F.
Bake until done. I wish I could be more precise than that, but I never time my breads. I depend entirely on my sense of smell to tell me when a bread is done. I was very proud of the bread recipe that I developed, but this beats it to flinders. It also keeps wonderfully (wrapped in plastic) for at least a week.