When I think about the things that I like to cook in relation to what other people might consider “normal,” I guess that bread is my specialty and definitely the thing that I truly love to make that most people prefer to buy. I spent many years thinking that bread was too complicated or difficult to make. My first efforts at breadmaking were not so great, and I was easily discouraged from making my own bread. I would try from time to time, but never felt satisfied with the results. A couple of years ago, I borrowed a bread machine cookbook from a friend and started making my own bread in the machine that my mom had bought me for Christmas the first year that Philip and I were married. Since the summer of 2009, the only bread that I have bought in a store has been “emergency” bread, that is bread that I needed and didn’t have time to make. That bread machine made me lots of loaves….sandwich loaves, pizza dough, dough for breakfast rolls and dinner rolls. Over the last few months, though, I have transitioned from the bread machine to making my loaves by hand-yes, completely by hand.
One of the great struggles that people who like to make their own bread and like to eat as healthfully as possible have is that great, homemade, 100% whole wheat bread feels like an enigma, an unreachable goal. Let me tell you, though, it is not. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I did, and now I’m going to share it with you!
My saving grace in this matter is the great Julia Child. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but I love Julia. When a 1967 copy of her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, appeared on the shelf at my favorite used book store, I knew that copy was meant for me. One flaw in that book, however, is the lack of bread recipes. So, a couple of years later, I invested in a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2, and satisfied my need for wonderful bread recipes. French bread, brioche, croissants….they’re all here. But I’m not going to talk about any of those. I am going to talk about pain de mie, Julia’s sandwich loaf, adapted by me to be 100% whole wheat. This is a great loaf of bread. Just being honest here, it’s a time investment. However, other than the 30 minutes of effort up front, it doesn’t require a lot of energy. Make it on a lazy day when you’re going to be around the house a lot.
Start by dissolving 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) of yeast (I use SAF brand) in three tablespoons warm (not hot) water. While the yeast dissolves in the water, weigh a pound of flour. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, this is about 3 1/2 cups. I, of course, use King Arthur brand white whole wheat. Yes, white whole wheat is just as nutritious as regular whole wheat, it’s just milled from a different type of wheat. It has a much finer texture and produces a crumb much closer to that of white flour. Heat 1 1/3 cups of milk until tepid-probably about a minute in the microwave, then stir 2 teaspoons of flour into the milk. Using a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, cut the milk/salt mixture and the yeast mixture into the flour. You may need to add a few tablespoons more of warm water if you are using whole wheat flour, as it is a bit drier than white flour. You want a dough that is soft and slightly sticky, but holds together in a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and let it rest for a few minutes while you wash and dry the bowl. I just use the mixing bowl from my Kitchenaid. Sprinkle a little bit of flour on top of the dough and begin to knead-pushing it away from you then pulling it back toward yourself, folding it over on top of itself, turning it over, rotating it….after a few minutes of this you will notice that your dough stops looking ragged and begins to look like dough. Don’t use too much flour or your dough will be tough. Kneading is what will form the gluten, giving your bread texture. Use just enough flour to keep yourself from getting dough all over your hands but not so much that the surface of the dough is dry.
Now, the part that many of you may find scary: the butter. Please, don’t fear butter. Butter is good. Remember that butter is a natural food. Please don’t use buttery spread or any of that mess in this recipe! I have very strong feelings about butter v. margarine, in case you didn’t know…anyway, cut four tablespoons of unsalted butter and beat it with your rolling pin. Cut it into four pieces and knead each piece into your dough, one at a time. The dough will start to feel like a sticky, nasty mess during this process. Don’t worry, it will come back together! You can add in a little more flour if you need to. Once you knead in all of your butter and the dough comes back together, place it in your mixing bowl and cover the bowl first with plastic wrap, then with a heavy towel-I use a bath towel. Place the towel in a warm place-between 70 and 75 degrees-and let it rise for about three hours, or until tripled-yes, tripled-in size. Take my word for it, this bread is worth the time that it takes.
After your three hour rise, you are going to punch the dough down. If you watched my potato rolls video, you know that I do not condone violence against bread dough. Don’t beat the dough! Use a rubber scraper to scrape the dough onto a floured surface and lightly sprinkle it with flour. Press the dough into a rectangle and fold it into thirds, like a letter. Turn it, press it out again, and fold. Repeat one more time, then reform into a ball, return to the bowl, re-cover, and let it rise for a second time, this time for about 1 1/2 to two hours.
After the second rise, lightly grease a 9×4 loaf pan with butter. Again, scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and press it into a rectangle slightly longer than the bread pan. Fold the dough in half lengthwise and seal the edges, then turn so the seam is on top. Press into a rectangle again and use the side of your hand to press a trench into the dough, then fold in half lengthwise, seal the edges, and turn so that the seal is on the bottom. Place into the bread pan and use your knuckles to press it all the way into the corners. Allow to rise for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, until it fills about 3/4 of the pan. During the last rise, preheat the oven to 435 degrees.
Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until browned and crusty on top. Allow to cool briefly in the pan, then cool completely on a cooling rack. You can cut this bread into thin slices or thick slices. It is fantastic toasted with butter and jelly or used to make sandwiches. This is the best sandwich bread I’ve ever made-white or whole wheat!