Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Bread Repels Hurricanes

In the days leading up to the northern landfall of Hurricane Sandy, we were put on high alert. Around here, it didn't end up exceeding a rainy day in March back home on the hill in Vermont (which still entails 40+ mph wind gusts), but given the several unprecedented qualities of the storm, particularly its size, it seemed unignorable. I suspect many locals were dragged into the memories of the storm exactly a year previous that dumped a foot of wet snow and left folks (including us) out of power for days or weeks. We prepared for this storm to make up for how we didn't prepare for that one. Perhaps, looking at those less than a hundred miles south of us who were out of power for over a week and those within 200 miles that are still suffering the effects, it was wiser to over-prepare. The governor pre-emptively declared a state of emergency and asked all schools to stay closed on Monday. So we did.

What else do you do with a day off and the thought that you could be out of power (and thus unable to cook) for a few days, but make sturdy bread? This bread starts with a multigrain porridge, adds a variety of seeds from sunflower to cumin and just enough flour to give the dough enough body to make a loaf. The loaf is dense; it lacks the well-developed gluten structure to create the large, irregular air pockets typical of artisan bread. However, this denseness also means that the bread takes a longer time to go stale, and not just because it's harder to tell. Moreover, the density of grains and seeds in a slice mean that it's also more nutritionally dense and satisfying. If you're going to be eating the same loaf of bread for a week because your stove doesn't work, this is a pretty good one to be stuck with.

We didn't end up losing power for more than two minutes during the day, but, then again, I was happy to have this bread for the week with electricity. The bread is good with just peanut butter, jam or cheese, but it's at its best toasted.

This is less of a recipe and more of a general schema; I don't know that I've ever made this exactly the same way twice. I used to make it more frequently when I used to eat multigrain porridge more regularly. Ironically, that very folksy food became less practical for daily consumption and slipped off the menu after I ditched the microwave (or, more specifically, stopped living with the roommate that had one). The combinations of grains and flours depends on what I have and what I feel like at the time. Common features are brown rice, steel-cut oats, buckwheat, barley and wheat berries. I also have a multigrain hot cereal blend with flaxseed from the bulk section at the co-op that I top things off with.

Breads containing intact or cracked whole grains typically start with a soaker. A soaker is slightly different from a hot cereal: instead of cooking the grains with water, you pour boiling water over them and let them sit for several hours or overnight. This softens the grains so that you don't end up cracking your teeth on them, but leaves their shape largely intact. It also helps activate some of the enzymes that break down the complex sugars in the grain to simpler ones, making for a more flavorful bread. Cooking the grains all the way lets you cram even more of them in, as the water in the cereal makes for most of the water of this very wet dough. By weight, this dough has more water than flour. A typical sandwich bread dough has about 60% as much water as flour by weight. A baguette has 70-75% as much water as flour. This has about 110% as much water as flour (though I'm not the first do acknowledge that breads containing whole or cracked grains make for uncannily wet baker's percentages). A well-hydrated dough also makes for a boldly crusty bread.

Like many good bread recipes, this one takes a lot of time start to finish, but very little active time. It makes it an excellent project for a rainy day, or, as it were, for a rainy and windy one.

Bonus: Get Pumped up to Bake!

The bread that French baker Vincent Talleu is making in his video is completely different from this one, but he exhibits such joy in baking that it makes a good watch to get you all pumped up to make bread of any kind.

Porridge Bread

vegan, makes two moderately-sized loaves or one very large loaf


  • 4 c. cooked grain (1 c. dry grain : 3 c. water)
  • 1 Tblsp. whole cumin
  • 1 Tblsp. whole caraway
  • 1 c. nuts & seeds
  • 1 Tblsp. kosher salt
  • Sponge:

  • 1 c. water
  • 1 Tblsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 c. flour
  • The Rest:

  • approx. 6 c. mixed flours
Begin by cooking the grain. Take a cup measure and fill it with whatever whole/cracked grains you have available. In this batch, I have teff, short-grain brown rice, farro, barley and a multigrain hot cereal including flax seed. Put it in a large saucepan (at least 2 qt) and add 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then turn to low and cook for another 20 minutes or so. If you're doing this the night before, you can bring to a boil and then simply turn off the heat and ignore it until the next day. If you're doing this same day, after cooking let the grain cool enough to touch (2-4 hours, though you could speed this up by putting it in the fridge and stirring occasionally). It can be warmer than room temperature, but shouldn't feel hot, as this could kill the yeast.

When you're ready to actually make the dough, start a sponge. The sponge is the wake up call for the sleeping yeast. Put a cup of lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl (this will accommodate your whole dough later) and add in the yeast and one cup of all-purpose or bread flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until it has a smooth, consistent texture. Set aside until it starts getting bubbly, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, get out your cup measure again and fill it up with a blend of nuts and seeds. I really like sunflower and sesame seeds, but have been known to include walnut pieces or slivered almonds. You can put in less of this or none at all without it changing the recipe significantly if you have dietary restrictions or have no nuts or seeds hanging around, but it really adds a lot to the bread. Add the seeds, salt, cumin and caraway seeds to the cereal in the pot and stir together. Again, if you don't have or don't like cumin or caraway, they're not essential, but I really like them. The salt, on the other hand, is important to controlling the rise of the bread and less negotiable. I typically include the same volume of salt as yeast, but if you're worried about salt you could get away with 2 teaspoons instead of a whole tablespoon.

Add the seed/cereal mix to the sponge and stir until well-blended. Begin adding flour, a cupful at a time. This is another place where you have some flexibility. You'll add about 6 cups of flour in this stage, but what kinds are up to you. It should be at least half varieties of wheat flour (i.e., white, whole-wheat, semolina, atta/chapati flour), but for the rest of it, go crazy with whatever buckwheat, rye, spelt, etc. flour that you have. Start by adding a cup of flour and stirring in one direction with a wooden spoon until well-blended. Stirring in the same direction helps the gluten develop. Continue mixing in the bowl with a spoon until the dough starts forming a ball and wanting to stick to itself more than the bowl. Flour a clean surface and turn the dough out onto it. Flour your hands and start kneading, adding more flour as the dough incorporates the flour and sticks to the kneading surface again. When the dough starts developing a smooth, coherent surface and stops wanting to stick to everything so much (not fewer than 5 cups of flour but not more than 7), load it back into the mixing bowl to rise. You can clean and oil the bowl, but it doesn't make a huge difference. Cover with a towel and leave in a spot slightly warmer than room temperature to rise. The heavy dough will take 70-90 minutes to double in bulk.

Once the dough has risen, flour your work surface again and scrape the dough out onto it. Knead the dough a few turns to push out the air. If making two loaves, divide dough in half with a bench scraper or large knife. For each loaf, fold the dough over several times and then form into a boule (French for "ball"). This video demonstrates how to form your dough into a boule far more efficiently and effectively than I could explain it in words. Note that the baker in the video finished by placing the boule into a basket to proof. Basket proofing is essential for helping a wet dough like this one keep its shape during the final rise; otherwise you risk having a thin, flat loaf. Luckily, one does not need purpose-designed baskets for proofing (mine, pictured farther above, weren't). Any small basket that you don't mind getting a little floury can be lined with a clean sack-cloth towel (woven, not terrycloth!), floured thoroughly and used for proofing. Others have had success lining a colander or even a bowl with a floured cloth and using it for a proofing basket. Baskets and colanders have the advantage of letting the dough breathe a little more, but a bowl will do in a pinch. For more info, this discussion thread contains several people's descriptions of their improvised proofing baskets. The dough's second rise will take somewhat less time (45-60 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 450°F. When oven is ready, turn loaves out onto a parchment or cornmeal/semolina-lined sheet pan or onto peel to load onto pizza stone. Slash the top of the loaves with a razor or sharp knife. For two loaves, bake for 45-60 minutes; for one large loaf, bake for 55-70 minutes. Bread is done when the crust has browned and loaf sounds hollow when you knock on the bottom.

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