Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bread for a Barn (and Everywhere Else)

It's beautiful, isn't it?

It certainly looked like everything I expected it to be: tender, light, elegant, and very different from the standard sweet-potato pie.

But let me tell you something. Martha Stewart lies.

She (or more truthfully, her magazine) claimed that this sweet potato soufflĂ© pie was easy to put together and delicious. First, in no way was this pie easy. Second, although the pie was sweet and pleasant, it certainly was not delicious. If I were to make it again, which I definitely won’t do, I would add much more ginger, eliminate the superfluous vanilla, and somehow or another figure out more “punch.”

I don’t want you to think that I dislike Martha Stewart. In fact, if you only knew how much I look forward to that day, each month, when my mailbox holds that long-awaited gift, my new issue of Martha Stewart Living, you might worry about me. When I open my mailbox and there it is, the walk back to my front door is so sweet. I walk slowly, paging through the magazine, looking at each lovely picture. This month, I got to see Martha’s barn—simple, slightly modern, and perfectly neat. Four very lucky Shire horses live in each corner of the barn, but for the Thanksgiving issue magazine spread, the horses are just decoration. Perfectly dressed, elegantly multiracial people populate a large table that extends through the center of the barn. Yes, Martha Stewart apparently hosts Thanksgiving feasts in her impeccably clean un-barn-like barn.

In each issue of the magazine, I find at least one thing that I look forward to trying out in the kitchen. More often than not, I’m delighted by the results of Martha Stewart recipes; however, there are always recipes like the sweet potato soufflĂ© pie I mentioned above: pretty, but quite frankly, a lot of fluff.

When I want fluff, I don’t want insipid fluff. Instead, I want dense, moist, crust-covered fluff. I want bread.

This Sunday, ECG and I had S and RWW over for a simple pasta and salad dinner. Frustrated with the sweet-potato pie from the night before, I knew I had to make bread. I set out with some leftover mashed potatoes and a couple recipes from various sources (including Beard on Bread and Food Network’s Potato Bread recipe), and I ended up with something wonderful.

It’s not beautiful, tender, light, or elegant. In fact, it’s a tad old-fashioned and heavy, with a rough crumb, and it bakes up to the immodest size of Andre the Giant’s bicycle helmet. It’s a great bread to sponge up smears of sauces left on dinner plates, to spread with a thick layer of good butter, or, after it has gone stale, to toast and top with a barely-set fried egg. This bread will never make it to an issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Potato Bread

You will need:
1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
½ cup leftover potato cooking water
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
5 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons flax meal

To make the bread:
Stir together the yeast and warm water in a large bowl.

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat milk, potato cooking water, butter, salt, and sugar to just below boiling. Take the pan off the heat, stir in the leftover mashed potatoes. Use your finger to test the temperature of the mixture—it should be warm, but not hot. Make sure that it is cooler than your body temperature; let it cool if you need to.

Pour the warm potato mixture into the bowl with the yeast and water. Stir in the flour and flax meal with a wooden spoon. Most likely, you will be unable to completely incorporate the flour into the mixture, but don’t worry, because you’re going to spend plenty of time kneading it all anyway. Turn the contents of the bowl onto a smooth surface (a granite counter-top, a glass cutting board, or something of the like) and begin to knead. Lift the mass of dough, let it fall a bit in your hands, then slap it down end-first on the counter. Repeat this action for seven or eight minutes. As you knead, you should be continually working air into the dough, which will allow the yeast to grow freely. You will also be building gluten proteins, those delightful substances that make bread a bit chewy.

Place the rounded ball of dough in a floured bowl, dust with flour, then cover with a cloth. Let it rise about 45 minutes or an hour, until it has doubled in size. Knead the dough another time, shape again into a ball, and place on a very well-floured baking sheet for its final rising. Cover the dough with a cloth. Let the bread rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, until it has once again doubled.

While the bread is rising, make sure you have a baking sheet or baking stone on the oven shelf on which you plan to bake the bread. The bread will rise even more, so make sure you have plenty of room for it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slide the bread off of the sheet on which it was rising (it may need a little help with a wooden spoon or a careful hand) and onto the hot baking stone or baking sheet in the oven. Spritz the inside of the oven a couple times with a squirt bottle, and close the oven. Don’t open the oven again for the first ten minutes of baking, or you won’t have a good crust. Bake the bread approximately 35-40 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when you knock on it.

This is a bread you can eat anywhere, even a very barn-like barn.

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