Really, it was inedible.
Well, that’s what she insists. I can’t say I remember the taste as much as I remember how scrawny the bread looked. It was a pale jaundiced color, the braiding was uneven, and it was about three inches high. You got the feeling that if you bit into it you might break a tooth.
Inspired by a trip to Switzerland, my mother had winged her first effort based on notes she’d scrawled on zopf, a braided yeast bread Swiss women make on Sundays in the Bernese Oberlin region. She used a packet of yeast she found buried in the pantry – for the just-in-cases? – and followed the directions on how to proof it. Perhaps she didn’t know that there should be vigorous bubbling. Or, maybe, with three barely-teenage children to feed, she didn’t have time to run out for new yeast. Whatever it was, my mother continued on unfazed.
The lesson learned: If the yeast ain’t alive, the bread won’t rise.
My mother is a
stubborn determined woman. After the failed attempt she didn’t pack up her flour and turn in her apron. She purchased new yeast and a book by Beth Hensperger, simply titled “Bread” (1988, Chronicle Books.) That was over a decade ago. Today, several pages have pulled away from the binding and my mother has become a proficient bread maker.
Her go-to bread is a buttermilk-honey loaf from “Bread.” I adore Hensperger’s description of it:
“This is where every American loaf begins: the breadmaker’s ‘little black dress.’ A beautiful bread to grace any table, to toast to your heart’s content, and to give as a gift. All the yeast breads in this collection have their roots in this recipe. For your very first loaf, please begin here.”
Hensperger is right. My mother has gifted this loaf time and again, and it has become an often requested item in her repertoire. Over the years, as any inspired cook will do, my mother has adapted the recipe to her own tastes and techniques. She has tweaked some of the measurements and doesn’t treat the process as reverently as some die-hard bread makers may. She also braids the loaf, though Hensperger’s recipe calls for a round or standard shape. The plaiting is a tribute to my mother’s Swiss inspiration.
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 packet of yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk, slightly warmed
- 1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) butter, melted
- 1/4-1/2 cup honey
- 6 cups flour, separated
- egg wash (1 beaten egg with 2 Tbsp water)
- sesame seeds, optional
Pour the warm water into the bottom of a large bowl and add the yeast. Then sprinkle in the sugar to activate the beast. My mother whisks this all together to help get the process going and then lets it sit for 10 minutes to bubble and blob. Well, she tries to wait 10 minutes.
Once the yeast has foamed and frothed, add the butter, milk and honey, whisking it all together vigorously. (The original recipe calls for half the butter, but my mother explains, “Since I don’t put butter on my bread, I like to add a little extra into it.” I’m pretty sure this defeats the healthful purpose of refraining from eating butter with your bread.)
Now it’s time to turn this liquid into dough. Add 2 cups of flour and mix with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Add two more cups and mix well. Once the dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl, add a cup more to soak up the rest of the moisture.
Scatter the remaining cup of flour on your kneading surface. Dump the shaggy dough from the bowl and begin gathering it into a ball and kneading it. Knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes until you have a smooth, firm pale-yellow ball of dough that gives a thud when you slap it. (Slap that dough!)
Grease the bowl you mixed the dough in and put the dough back in. Let it sit and rise for an hour and a half in a warm place. My mother puts it in the microwave. (A good idea unless you have kids that might press the buttons and turn it on.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the dough has risen to double its original size, gently punch it down and turn it back out on a lightly floured surface. Flatten and shape the dough into a rectangle, then cut it into three equal strips, lengthwise. Cross the strips into a braid and tuck the ends under. Move the bread to a greased baking sheet and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Brush the egg glaze over the top of the bread, which will give the finished bread a nice sheen, and sprinkle the bread with sesame seeds, if using. Finally it's time to perfume the house with the sweet scent of this golden loaf: Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes and let cool.