Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sweet and Spongy success

There are two family heirlooms passed among the women on my mother’s side of the family. The first is a mole on the left breast and the second is the making of biscuits and bread. They are a part of all of the women in my immediate family, my Aunt Pat and my Grandma too. I love both heirlooms.

A little over a decade ago, a doctor (while giving me a breast exam) freaked out about my left breast mole because it looked like a malignant melanoma. The mole got removed and replaced by a two-inch scar skirted with suture marks. Although the biopsy of it showed that it was precancerous, I have since missed that mole. But at least I could still make bread.

This last year, it became clear that I have celiac disease or something very similar to that, (which incidentally is a trait shared by some of the women on my dad’s side of the family) and so bread seemed to be out too. Of course I could eat the (as my mom calls it) icky stuff that they call gluten free bread at the grocery store, but it is only marginally better than no bread at all.

I should have mentioned that stubbornness is a third trait among the women of both sides of my family and when all else fails, stubbornness gets us through. (I know that it’s supposed to be “Charity never faileth”, but sometimes charity and stubbornness are one and the same.) So I embarked on a quest to make good bread with as simple a recipe as possible.

The bread my mom taught me to make had fresh ground wheat flour, salt, oil (or applesauce as a substitute), warm water, yeast, and a little sugar. They were all mixed by eye and texture and taste. No measuring spoons used, no recipe, only a knowledge of what each ingredient did, an idea of relative amounts, and what the end result should be like. I wanted to find a gluten-free bread that approximated the same flavor, texture and approach to baking bread and so I tried the internet. There weren’t any I could find there. So I started searching for a recipe in my own kitchen.

I tried many flours and here is a list of their properties in my hands:
Rice- Grainy, not soluble in water
Sorghum- Sweet, very heavy
Amaranth- Great texture, very soluble, smells and tastes like a gerbil cage
Millet- A little heavy, very dry
Oat- Very moist, but light

Initially, I tried using potato starch or corn starch with some of the flours listed above, but they made the bread cakey and starchy. I tried sweet potato starch, which comes out a bit drier and it was better but still not like real bread.

After trying a variety of combinations that I won’t go into, I combined oat and millet flour and it turned out very well. This is basically what I did:

About 1 ½ cups of warm water. (Use ½ cup with a little sugar to start the yeast.)
1 ½ teaspoons of Red Star active dry yeast (use double if compressed yeast)
About 1 teaspoon of salt
About 4 Tablespoons of applesauce (gluten free baking is high calorie already so I am
trying to cut out as much oil as I can and applesauce seems to work just as well)
1 cup of hulled millet ground to powder (I use a Vita-mix)
1 ½ cups of McCann’s Irish Steel Cut Oats ground to powder.
2 Tablespoons of xanthan gum.

Get the yeast started in a small bowl or a glass. Put the remaining 1 cup of water in the mixing bowl and add the salt and applesauce. Grind flours and add them. At this point the yeast should be going so add it too and then mix. At this point, the bread dough should be the consistency of a thick cake batter. Then add the xanthan gum and mix until everything is smooth. After the xanthan gum is added, the consistency should be a soft and sticky dough that sometimes releases from the mixing bowl, but not as well as kneaded wheat bread dough. Gather it up and put it in a greased pan. Arrange the dough into a loaf shape with a spatula or your hand and then wet your hand and smooth the top so that the loaf comes out pretty. Let the loaf rise* until it has grown to a little more than double its original size (This recipe makes a moist bread and so if it rises a bit extra it seems more normal.) Bake at 350º F for about an hour.

This makes good bread. I may fiddle with the recipe a bit more and I think that there is room for improvement, but this is the best bread I have eaten in a while. It makes me feel close to my mom and grandma when I make it.

*The way I let my bread dough rise is to put a pan of water in the oven and heat the oven up just until it is warm (~130º F) and then shut it off. Then when the loaf is made, I put it in the oven. After the loaf is done rising, I turn the oven to 350º and cook the bread.

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