By now, you’ve probably decided upon your Thanksgiving menu (turkey, anyone?) and are Googling like crazy, or if you are old-fashioned, leafing through your favorite cookbooks, in pursuit of that one elusive, last-minute dish that will break with tradition. I am, per usual, behind. I am going to decide on the final details when I pick up my turkey on Wednesday.
In the meantime, I’m planning for remorse.
Because, no matter how good my intentions, I know I will be feeling it on Friday morning as I stare down the surviving slices of pumpkin pie on the kitchen counter. Before a sip of coffee crosses my lips, I know I will debate whether or not to get it over with and eat that pie for breakfast. What the hell. We all know that Friday will be a junior version of Thursday, with re-warmed mashed potatoes and gravy, or turkey sandwiches slathered in cranberry sauce and topped with stuffing, yes-siree. Never mind. By Saturday, I’ll be more or less back on track, making stock and soup and eating turkey sandwiches for a few more days on razor thin slices of the Polish rye bread I am going to tell you about in a minute. Razor thin slices of bread seem downright virtuous after prior dietary indiscretions.
I had two prompts that propelled me into bread-baking mode before I even started thinking about a Thanksgiving menu. One was a conversation a few weeks ago with an acquaintance, who happens to be Polish, about the bread of that country: loaves full of grainy, seedy, earthy, healthy goodness; loaves with dense and moist interiors and crisp, noble crusts that inspire sighs and longing; loaves that I have never been able to find here. My friend promised a recipe. She returned the very next day with some fresh yeast and a piece of paper in hand. Her daughter elaborated on the finer points—back and forth from Polish to English—and the pair of them gave me the address of a website to consult—written in Polish, but available in English with a tap on the Google translation button.
These instructions were, well, sketchy. Difficult to decipher. In order to make it easy on myself (and on you, should you be tempted to try this) I put the instructions aside and plunged in, relying on the Jim Lahey method of baking bread, also made popular by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I have been baking versions of this bread on a weekly basis for a couple of years now. First, it’s dead easy and fabulous, and second, it costs, at the most, a dollar a loaf. I more or less freaked out the other day when I saw that the price of my favorite rye bread had reached five, count ‘em, five dollars! (and that’s without the seeds, my friends). The coveted harvest bread I love? Seven dollars. I can only imagine what my mother would say if I told her the sandwich she was eating was made on a slice from a seven dollar loaf.
There are a lot of things that could make this bread recipe complicated if your mind works that way, but don’t let it. It’s nice to have some of the equipment I mention, but if you don’t, all you really need to make this bread is a bowl, a wooden spoon, and a baking sheet. Make the dough the night before (5 minutes). The next morning, shape it (5 minutes), let it rise (1 to 1 1/2 hours), and bake it (40 minutes). We’re talking about 10 minutes hands-on time, people. Just do it!
Polish rye bread
Makes 1 large loaf (about 1 3/4 pounds)
150 g rye flour (1 1/4 cups)
150 g whole wheat flour (1 1/4 cups)
175 g bread or all-purpose flour (1 1/3 cups)
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 tablespoons flax seeds
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/3 cups water
A little olive oil
Flour (any kind) for the countertop
1. Have on hand a 12-inch long, oval cast-iron pot, a 5-quart round cast-iron pot, a cast-iron skillet, or a baking sheet. (Listed in order of preference)
2. In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, stir the rye flour, whole wheat flour, white flour, instant yeast, caraway seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and salt together until combined.
3. Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment until the dough is well mixed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and push the dough together to form a ball, more or less, don’t obsess. The dough will be sticky. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of the dough and pat it around with your fingers to cover the surface of the dough. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the surface and leave overnight, or for 8 to 12 hours.
4. Generously flour the countertop. With a dough scraper or rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto the countertop in one lump and shape it.
For an oblong loaf, push it into an oval shape approximately 9-by-4 inches in size. Flour your hands and the dough. With the long side of the oval parallel to the edge of the counter, roll the dough into a cylinder. Pinch the seam with your fingertips.
For a round loaf, pick up the dough with both hands and stretch the surface of the dough in a downward direction and tuck it under itself to form a ball with a smooth top. Place it on the floured countertop, and cupping your hands around it, turn it in a circle until it is evenly round.
5. Spread a dishtowel (not a terry towel) over a baking sheet or cutting board (so that you can move the loaf around if you need to without disturbing it.) Sprinkle a generous amount of flour on the towel. Place the shaped loaf on the towel and coat it with more flour. Fold the sides and ends of the towel lightly and loosely over the dough. Let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size. (If the room is cool, let rise for a longer period.)
6. About 1/2 hour before you are ready to bake the bread, adjust an oven rack to the bottom position. If you have a baking stone, set it on the rack. Place the baking pot of choice with its cover on the rack and heat the oven to 450 degrees.
7. When the dough has risen, use a serrated knife or razor blade to make 3 evenly spaced slashes about 1/2 inch deep.
8. Remove the hot pot or pan from the oven, set it on a potholder, and carefully transfer the dough into it. Clap on the cover. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for 10 minutes longer.
9. Remove the pot from the oven and transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool. Don’t even think about slicing it until it is cool!
If you have a kitchen scale, weigh the ingredients, because flour absorbs liquid and also becomes compacted in the canister or bag, so weight measurements will be more accurate than cup measurements. If you are measuring instead of weighing, use the fluff and scoop method: fluff the flour in the canister, scoop it into the measuring cup (the metal kind with a handle, not the Pyrex type with a spout) and level it off with your finger or a knife. Use the exact size dry measuring cup, don’t toss it in a cup with a spout and then shake it to level it (that will compact the flour.),
You can buy instant yeast in small packets, but if you get into the game, buy it in larger quantities. I like the RAF brand of instant yeast (available at Whole Foods). Regular granulated dry yeast in packets (such as Fleischmanns) must be dissolved and activated in warm water. New, improved, “instant” or “rapid rise” yeast (also in little packets) is actually made from a slightly different strain of yeast and does not need to be dissolved in water, but can be added directly to the dry ingredients, thus eliminating one step. Other than ease of use, there is little to differentiate these two types of granulated yeast. Yeast packets contain slightly less than a tablespoon. Yeast is perishable; so check the expiration date on the package to ensure good results.
Using a pot with a cover has a couple of advantages. A covered pot traps steam from the wet dough inside the pot, which contributes to “ovenspring,” the rapid gas expansion that occurs in the first five to ten minutes of baking, because the steam adds even more heat. Steam also condenses on the crust, and that water slows the drying of the outside of the loaf, helping it expand even more while it slowly forms a thicker, shinier crust. CAVEAT: if the lid of your pot (Le Creuset, for example) is not heat tolerant up to 450 degrees, cover the pot with a baking sheet instead. If you don’t have a pot, second best would be a cast iron skillet, and third best, a baking sheet sprinkled with a little flour or cornmeal.
Mix all ingredients in a bowl just until blended. Place a piece of plastic directly on top of dough and let rise overnight
The dough will double (at least) in size
Scrape the dough onto the floured countertop. It will be sticky.
Shape the dough into an oval, and roll it tightly.
Pinch the seam firmly and turn the dough over so that the seam is on the bottom.
Spread a dishtowel on a baking sheet and coat it generously with flour. Cover the dough with more flour.
Loosely cover the dough with the towel and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Uncover the dough and use a serrated knife to make 3 evenly-spaced slashes on top.
Carefully transfer the dough into the hot pot (or skillet or baking sheet.) Bake, and prepare to be wowed.
Lessons over. Now go make bread. And happy, happy Thanksgiving. May your blessings multiply as you contemplate them on Thanksgiving.
Find more recipes you might like for Thanksgiving from this blog:
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(The Garum Factory)
(Fresh New England)