This is the fourth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.
Today: Tom gives us our daily bread -- it's braided, whole wheat, and topped with poppyseeds.
Bodies are crammed into the elevator. I am in the corner smushed against the control panel and asking other riders repeatedly, "What floor?" I hear lots of twos, fives, and sixes, plus a few threes, before I finally get to push four for myself.
The elevator is still half full by the time it reaches my floor. The door opens with its standard ding. Not a soul stands waiting to board the car, but what does rush in instead is the amazing yeasty smell of baking bread. The smell fills the elevator car to capacity and the occupants let out a "man, that smells good"-style moan, wondering if the elevator cables will hold under the stress of all that goodness.
I mutter "excuse me" a couple of times and shuffle out the door.
I am giddy, nervous, and excited. This is my first day of culinary school and I couldn't have hoped for a better welcoming committee then then the smell of fresh bread.
The community college is housed in an enormous old insurance building, but what with all of its equipment, the school kitchen is packed tight. There is nothing organic about how industrial the kitchen feels, which I find strange.
But "industrial" is the reality, after all. This is about production cooking, not niche gourmet food -- and in any case, I come to love this kitchen. It really feels like a second home on many nights, finishing up a five-hour cooking lab at ten thirty in the evening.
Every day when I walk into the kitchen, I am greeted by the revolving deck oven. It is a beast with hot breath and spits out as many loaves of bread as you can put into it, and the telltale squeak of it slowly spinning round and round becomes a kitchen timer of sorts. It will be two more semesters before I get to take the yeast breads class, but when I finally get to use the deck oven it makes me feel like I'm a somebody.
Bread is different. Most of my culinary career has been spent trying to use up dead things before they spoil -- bread, on the other hand, is a living organic thing that I'm bringing to life. Making bread makes me feel like I can feed a community. I often think to myself, "If all else fails, there is bread."
So began my bread baking. Since then, on every Sunday and Wednesday for the last fifteen years I've found myself at home dusting the black granite countertop with flour. Now it's often with the girls standing on a stool next to me. As I removing the warm dough from its bowl to knead, I let them get their little hands in too. I feel the elasticity of the gluten against the palms of my hands as it fights back and forms, all the trapped air bubbles of yeast eventually making the bread rise and giving it crumb.
I have built up a repertoire. I make challah, flatbreads, Pullman loaves, Pain de Campagne, and a good rye. Over time I've come to make my breads with sixty percent or more whole wheat; to me, white flour is tasteless in comparison. The refrigerator feels empty if there isn't a pâte fermentée aging away for the next loaf of French bread, and there are always leftover cooked whole grains like brown rice and farro waiting to be incorporated into a nubby country loaf.
There are those days I feel it is a burden to make bread and I often wonder why I don't just buy it. I suppose if there was a good bakery nearby I would -- I might not even make bread at all.
I slide a braided country loaf into the oven.
On other days, I find it odd that it took going to culinary school to learn to make bread. Being male and not being in the kitchen with mom, I guess. Though my mother didn't really bake bread either -- oh, she made great beer bread. She even had a bread machine at one point. Bread baking just wasn't her thing. But then it doesn't seem to be most people's thing. Somehow I feel we are always told that we can't bake or cook, so we don't.
Sunday dinner is on the table. Tonight we eat in the dinning room. It is important to make a big deal out of dinner sometimes, and move it into a formal atmosphere. Give it some importance, some heft outside of the holidays.
We're having pot roast, nothing fancy. I tear into the loaf of warm bread, the smell permeating the room just like on the elevator all those years ago on that first day of culinary school. I hand some to Amy and the girls, then serve myself a piece. A bit of butter easily softens on the warm interior.
Farmhouse Whole Wheat Bread
Makes two 4"x8" loaves
2 1/2 cups warm buttermilk
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon dry active yeast
5 1/2 cups finely ground whole wheat flour
1 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 egg white mixed with a tablespoon of water
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.