The long, slow, wonderful rise of fresh-baked bread

March 13, 1994|By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid | Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid,Eating Well Magazine

Good bread is our bottom line. Our kitchen can run short of fresh vegetables and fruit, or pasta and meat. That's OK. But when we're out of bread, something must be done, and out comes the bread bowl.

Bread is the ultimate fast food. Slice it, toast it or simply tear off a chunk and eat it. Granted, baking good bread is hardly a quick activity, and the best bread takes patience. But if you add up the total number of minutes actively spent making bread (as opposed to the time spent doing other things while it rises and bakes), it is less demanding than many other things we do in the kitchen.

A few years ago, we spent several months in France in search of breads and bread-making traditions. We became fond of a large cottage loaf sold by a boulangere named Madame Risler at the weekly market in Mulhouse. The bread had a thick, chewy crust and a soft, off-white interior.

"Our bread is not au levain [from a starter]," Madame Risler explained. "We like to use a very small amount of dry yeast. We let the dough rise slowly -- for eight hours. . . . That way the flavor of the bread has a chance to develop while still not becoming sour."

Back home in Toronto, we began cutting way back on yeast and allowing for a long, slow period of fermentation at room temperature -- and our family bread was instantly transformed. Not only did the bread have more flavor, but it had better texture and keeping qualities.

Whole-wheat walnut bread

Makes 1 loaf

When working with an entirely whole-wheat bread, remember to knead well -- a good dough will require a full 10 minutes.

2 tablespoons brown sugar, mild honey or malt syrup

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

4 to 5 cups whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon walnut or olive oil

3/4 cup chopped walnuts or walnut pieces (3 ounces)

In a large bowl, stir together 2 cups lukewarm water and brown sugar, honey or malt syrup. Sprinkle with yeast and stir until it has dissolved.

Gradually mix in 2 1/2 cups of the flour. Stir the batter 100 times in the same direction (for 1 minute). Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 1/2 hour or up to 2 hours.

Uncover, sprinkle with salt and stir gently. Stir in oil. Then stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until dough becomes too difficult to stir. Turn the dough onto a well-floured work surface and knead, gradually incorporating more flour as necessary to prevent sticking, until dough is smooth and slightly elastic, 10 to 12 minutes. Place dough in a large, oiled bowl, turn to coat and cover with wrap. Let rise until doubled in volume, 2 to 3 hours.

In a small, dry skillet, toast walnuts, stirring over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until golden and fragrant.

Lightly oil a 5-by-9-inch bread pan. Set aside. Gently punch down the dough and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Press the dough with your hands into a 10-by-8-inch oval. Sprinkle evenly with the walnuts, then press them lightly into the dough. Starting at one narrow edge, tightly roll up the dough to form a loaf. Pinch edges all along the seam to seal. Place in the bread pan, seam-side down and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until almost doubled, 45 to 55 minutes.

Meanwhile, place oven rack in lower third of the oven; heat to 400 degrees. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, another 40 to 50 minutes. Transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Calories per slice: 133; 5 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrate; 239 milligrams sodium; no cholesterol.

Slow-rise family loaf

Makes 1 large or 2 smaller loaves

Inspired by Madame Risler's bread in Alsace, this bread uses very little yeast and can be left to rise overnight.

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

7 1/2 to 8 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour

1 cup rye flour

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

In a large bowl, stir together 3 cups lukewarm water and sugar. Sprinkle with yeast and stir until dissolved. One cup at a time, mix in 3 cups of the white flour and the rye flour. Stir the batter 100 times in the same direction (for 1 minute). Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 1/2 hour or up to 2 hours.

Uncover, sprinkle with salt and stir gently. One cup at a time, stir in remaining white flour until the dough becomes too difficult to stir. Turn the dough onto a well-floured work surface and knead, gradually incorporating more flour as necessary to prevent sticking, until the dough is smooth and slightly elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl, turn to coat and cover with wrap. Let rise until doubled in volume, 8 to 12 hours.

Lightly oil a large baking sheet, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds and set aside.

Gently punch down the dough and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Knead briefly, then press the dough with hands into a rectangle about 1/2 inch thick.

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