Nothing smells like home-baked bread on a cold winter afternoon–or any time, now that I think about it! Thank goodness making bread at home is easy and even quick, if you just leave the dough on its own as it rises (and why wouldn’t you?). Today we’re going to make a remarkably soft but also hearty, healthy whole-wheat and oatmeal bread that makes great breakfast toast, super sandwiches, and even tasty croutons. You can add walnuts or seeds for a bread fit for the Woodstock generation, or try using herbs or garlic to turn it into rustic supper rolls, as I did with a little of the dough the last time I made this bread. You can even make fresh, hot homemade glazed doughnuts for breakfast and still have enough dough left for a good-sized loaf of the bread in the afternoon.
Bread is really easy , as long as you remember three keys for making good yeast bread. The first key to baking any yeast bread is to remember that yeast is a living organism. It’s going to be happiest (and help your bread rise best) if you start with fresh (live) yeast and wake it up in a nice warm (not hot) bath. The second thing you need to know is that yeast likes to eat, but it doesn’t like to binge; keep your yeast feed slow. The third key is remembering that wheat gluten is your friend when it comes to yeast bread. Wheat gluten is the substance that helps build structure to work with all the gas produced by your happy yeast. Put together happy yeast and wheat gluten, and you’ll have great homemade yeast bread.
Remember to use organic when you can!
- 1 tablespoon yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup warm water (comfortable for your skin)
- 1 cup old-fashioned (not quick cooking) rolled oats (a.k.a. oatmeal before steel-cut Irish oats and Scottish oats invaded the US)
- 1 1/4 cup boiling water
- 1/2 milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons ground flax seeds (optional: if you don’t have flax seeds, try using another tablespoon of butter)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2-3 tablespoons honey
- 4 cups whole-wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
- 1/4 cup whole-grain oat flour (or just add another 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour if you don’t have oat; I keep both in my pantry, and the oat flour helps provide softness)
- 1/4-1/3 cup wheat gluten (Gluten has gotten a really bad rap in recent years, but it’s a must if you want to make whole-grain bread and still get the flexibility that contributes to sustaining the rise. Gluten, by the way, also raises the protein content of the bread, so if you’re not sensitive to it, use it!)
- 1/2 cup more warm water (same as before–like a nice hot bath but not so warm that it hurts you or the yeast)
Begin by dissolving the yeast and sugar in the 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl (preferably 4-quart, although a 2.5 quart will work in a pinch). You’re proofing the yeast. If it’s good, in a few minutes you should have woken up your yeast, and they should have started making a foamy mess in your bowl. That’s what we want to see!
Meanwhile, pour the 1 1/4 cup boiling water over the oatmeal. I use a 2-cup heat-safe pyrex measuring cup for the oatmeal, and then I can just add everything else except the flour.
Next scald the milk by bringing it to the edge of a boil, until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the pot. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter, salt, and honey until they dissolve. Add them to the oatmeal.
As soon as the oatmeal mixture reaches that good bath-water temperature, add the oatmeal to the yeast mixture in your really big bowl, add the flax seed, and start working in your flour, baking powder, and wheat gluten, alternating so that they all three get thoroughly mixed. Knead the flour in until you think you can’t add more, then do the easy thing and add the last 1/2 cup warm water–yep, bathwater temperature again. Knead a few minutes more, until all of the flour is incorporated. Then cover the bowl and set it in a warm place to start rising. Thanks to the extra water, it will keep developing the gluten on its own, without too much kneading from you.
For the next twenty-four hours or so, let the dough rise. When you notice that it’s doubles, form your hand into a fist and slam it into the middle of the dough. Punch it down. Give it a few good kneads. Re-cover it and walk away again.
When you’re ready to bake, you’ll need at least two hours with the dough. Start by punching down and kneading the dough one last time. Then put it in a warm (not hot), buttered bread loaf pan, 9×5. (You can use an 8×4 if you’ve taken a bit out for other purposes–see below.) Let it rise for an hour in a warm (not hot) place for an hour. Start pre-heating your oven to 375 degrees F. The dough is ready for the oven when an indentation you make with your finger still bounces back but just barely. Put the dough in the oven and bake for 40 minutes. The bread is done when you knock on the bottom and it sounds hollow. Cool in the pan a few minutes and then cool on a rack.
The Bonus: Rolls or Doughnuts!
Now, I happen to know that this dough makes an ample loaf, so ample in fact that you can pull out a bit of dough for something else and have enough left. Let’s say that you start this bread Sunday afternoon. How about if you take out dough about the size of two or three chicken eggs that very night? Turn that into three dinner rolls, let rise for about an hour in a warm spot, and then bake them for dinner, about 20-30 minutes at 375 degrees F.
Or you can do what we did this morning, having started the dough yesterday. Make doughnuts! Take out a scant 1/2 cup dough. Add 1/2 a chicken egg (or one bantam egg), beaten with a sprinkle of sugar (no more than 1/2 teaspoon) and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Knead it together until the egg is well incorporated. You’ll have a very soft dough. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of flour on a bread board and then pull out three or four balls of dough. First form rounds, and either cut out the middle or use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke through a hole and enlarge it. Use flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Let the doughnuts rise for a half hour. Heat oil of two or three inches to 350 to 375 degrees F in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot. Drop doughnuts in one at a time and fry until almost done on one side, and then flip to the other side. Remove, drain, and drizzle with glaze. Glaze: three tablespoons of powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and enough milk, by the drop, to make your glaze. Take it slow with the milk and stir with every addition; you can easily go from not enough to too much.