I've owned a copy of the celebrated Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book for more than a year, but after trying out just one recipe (Manuel's Rye Sour), and not meeting much success, it has sat, unused and unappreciated, on my shelf. The four or five loaves I made from that recipe were squat, coarse, and the flavor did not compensate for the time invested in babying the starter. As readers of this blog will know, I have been baking from the Tassajara Bread Book instead. The format is a lot simpler and more straightforward, and it was a nice, unintimidating jump-off point into the mysteries of breadmaking. Still, after baking the same loaf six or seven times, I was looking to try something new when I found myself with a few hours around the house yesterday. Not wanting challah, I skipped over Maggie Glezer's A Blessing of Bread, another favorite. Reluctantly, I flipped through Laurel's book again, and chose the Buttermilk Bread recipe with some misgivings.
This recipe did not involve a starter and so was similar to the basic Tassajara Bread recipe. It could also be done in one afternoon, instead of five days. Unfortunately, when I started getting my ingredients together, I realized I did not have enough of either whole wheat flour (which was of dubious freshness anyways), or honey. Knowing that bread allows for substitutions, I replaced half the honey with some blackstrap molasses I had purchased from the coop down the street, and half the flour with all purpose. As I found out this afternoon when I finally gave the book a chance and spent some time reading it through, the first substitution was OK, but the second one was a big no-no. My poor loaves turned out dense and short because the AP flour didn't have enough gluten. Compare the picture above with this picture of my first experience with oven spring. Fortunately, the flavor is still very good, so at least they're edible. The molasses turned my bread a dark, almost pumpernickel color, but made the house smell amazing. I worried that the molasses flavor would overpower the bread, but once the loaves were done, it just left a nice dark caramel taste and was not objectionable at all.
While the bread was not a technical success, I am glad that it brought my attention back to this fabulous book which guides the novice breadbaker carefully, thoughtfully, through the age-old process of breadbaking with a deep spiritual respect for the loaf throughout. I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for someone with absolutely no baking experience, as the technicalities it describes can be intimidating and are unhelpfully scattered through the book in disparate sections, resulting in much flipping back in forth. After the laid-back introduction by Tassajara though, it was the perfect next step. It starts with an introduction to the value of breadmaking in grounding us in the important things in life - family, community, health, and valuing the local over the global and corporate. It even quotes Gandhi. Then it eases you into a Loaf for Learning, which is a recipe intended for novices and old hands alike. Other recipes follow, interspersed with invaluable tips, techniques, and troubleshooting. I'm enjoying it so much, it's become my bedtime reading!