Some days, I find myself pondering a bit at the shape my life has taken. And often having a private giggle over it. Getting stoked on bread baking, defending the coolness of knitting, my days' highs and lows dependent on (among just a few other things) successes and failures in the kitchen...is this Laura Ingalls wanna-be the person I envisioned I would one day become?
Truth be told, I can't really remember. As a child, I do remember digging on Laura, and figuring life would be so much lovelier if I could wear long dresses all the time. Any character out of "the olden days" excited my interest. I spent a rather large portion of my childhood pretending to be someone else...A pioneer seeking a new life, on the Oregon Trail...a Jane Eyre that was not so proper that she had to run away from Mr Rochester...a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, stranded on an island in an awesome treehouse...an escaping Von Trapp, singing my way over the Alps. (Siblings and cousins were recruited for many of these capers. Provided they follow my vision. Of course.)
So, I suppose it's not overly surprising that I find myself here, drawn to the crafts and traditions of the past, romanticizing a simpler way of life. All the while feeling very fortunate to benefit from modern convenience. No late night jaunts to the outhouse for this voting, speaks-her-mind, wears-pants-if-she-feels-like-it, gal, that's for certain.
One convenience in particular makes my dedication to handmade a whole lot more do-able: my trusty bread machine. I only use it for kneading, because who can be asked sparing either the time, or the energy on working the dough into a good texture? Not me.
I often tweak my Go-to Loaf recipe, based on what sounds good, or what is lurking in the cupboards, and this version is my latest incarnation. A handful of seeds, a pinch of fennel, butter and honey create a heavenly, soft loaf, with a good, crusty exterior. Just the thing to bring out your inner Laura.
Fennel, Sunflower, and Sesame Seed Bread
-makes one large loaf
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 Tbs melted butter
1 tsp honey
2 tsp fine sea salt
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 cup mixed sunflower and sesame seeds, plus more for sprinkling on top
pinch coarse sea salt (I used a Himalayan pink salt)
In the pan of your bread machine, pour the warm water, then add the yeast, melted butter, honey, and salt. Leave for about 5 or 10 minutes, until the yeasts comes alive and looks frothy.
Add in the flours, and set the machine to the dough cycle. (Mine is 1 1/2 hours, including the rise.) At the add-in beep (or near the end of mixing, if you, like me, never manage to be in the same room at the time it beeps), add in the fennel, sunflower, and sesame seeds, and let the dough finish its cycle in the machine.
At the end of the dough cycle, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board. It will likely be quite sticky, but this is a good thing. If you add too much flour, your bread will be too heavy. With a bit of practice, it's easy to work with, using a dough scraper, and flouring your hands to keep the dough from sticking to them. Shape the dough into a large round, using this technique, then cover with a large plastic garbage bag, and leave to rise until doubled in size. Depending on your room temperature, this will take anywhere from three quarters of an hour, to an hour and a half. Give or take.
At the end of this second rise, you can either bake the loaf, or punch it down, reshape, and allow it to rise one more time, the end result being a lighter, more pillowy bread. Do not rise more than 3 times, or your yeast will lose its oomph, and not have enough left in it to rise in the oven.
When the dough looks to be nearly risen, and you can gently push a finger into it without it springing back immediately, preheat the oven to 500 deg F. Set the kettle to boil some water, and place two baking sheets, one with rimmed sides, in the oven to preheat.
Set up your ingredients near the oven:
A very sharp serrated knife, or razor blade
A spray bottle of water
Sunflower, fennel, and sesame seeds, and coarse salt, for sprinkling
A dough scraper for lifting the bread from the board
Kettle of boiled water
Remove the rimless baking sheet from the oven, and carefully transfer the risen loaf to the sheet. It may fall a little bit, but not too much if you're gentle. Working quickly, but carefully, slash the dough across the top, 3 times, about 1/2 an inch deep. Spritz with water from the spray bottle, and sprinkle with seeds and salt.
Place the loaf on the upper shelf, in the middle of the oven, and with the utmost care, quickly pour the boiled water into the rimmed baking sheet, while it's on the lower shelf (you don't want to transfer a sheet pan of boiling water), and shut the oven door. The faster you can manage this, the less heat will escape, and the better your bread will be. The water from the spray bottle, and the steam rising off the baking sheet, conspire to give you a beautiful, crisp crust, so don't skip this step.
Set the timer to 10 minutes, and spritz with water a couple of times, if you like. When the timer goes off, re-set it to 10 minutes, and turn the oven down to 425.
Now the bread will have been baking twenty minutes. If it looks to be browning rather quickly, turn the heat down to 375, at this twenty-minute mark. If it still looks rather light, keep the heat at 425. Bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the bread is golden brown, and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom, for a total of 40 to 45 minutes.
And there you have it. I do believe Laura would be envious of our time-saving techniques and gadgets, don't you?
The bread will keep for 2 days, wrapped in a plastic or paper bag. To reheat, and re-crisp the crust, spritz with water, and bake for ten minutes, at 350.
Have a lovely day.