Today would have been my Dad’s 93rd birthday. He wasn’t a vegetarian. His favourite foods were: fried eggs (sunny side up), Campbell’s Pork and Beans (Mom spiffed them up with green peppers, mustard, and various other secret bits of magic), and pretty much anything made with ground beef. According to family legend, Mom and Dad went in with friends once to buy a steer. When the butcher called to find out how they wanted their half cut up, Dad told him to just grind the whole beast into hamburger. Fortunately, Mom was able to intervene. Dad was an avid gardener and produced bushels of tomatoes, green peppers (capsicum), tender little yellow crookneck squash, okra, eggplant, raspberries and figs. But, at heart, he was a meat-and-potatoes sort of guy.
Like most meat-and-potatoes guys, Dad also loved bread. Good, hearty, stick to your ribs, Olde Worlde bread: rye, pumpernickel, crusty Kaiser rolls, and the absolutely delicious, chewy hard rolls from the Black Forest Bakery in Athens, Georgia. When our family moved from Virginia to Georgia in 1967, we entered the black hole of bread. European style bread simply didn’t exist. Not even mass-produced rye bread. Certainly not the kind of peasant breads that work your jaws and have the fortitude to mop up the remains of a hearty soup. Roman Meal Bread was the closest to whole wheat available. Our choices were pretty much Sunbeam (“It’s batter whipped”) and Wonder Bread. It was at this point that Mom went back to baking bread in a serious fashion.
It wasn’t easy. These were the days before supermarkets sold Bread Flour, and most flour sold in the South was made from soft, summer wheat. Flours like White Lilly are indispensable for making biscuits, cornbread, and cakes, but lack the complex gluten structures that are needed for hearty, crusty European loaves. Eventually, Mom found a commercial source of hard wheat flour, which she bought in twenty pound bags and she was off. Every three weeks or so, I’d come home to a kitchen full of dough and the smell of fresh baked bread. It was heaven. Some would go in the freezer, but Dad and I usually devoured at least one loaf on the spot.
Mom was famous for her breads. At the Annual Christmas Auction at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, her “coffee cake of the month” and “bread of the month” offerings raised a pretty penny. When she teamed up with our friends Kline and Carolyn to offer a catered German dinner party, folks pulled out their check books and dug deep.
At this time of year, she’d be in full Christmas Stollen baking mode. She was famous for her stollen — the traditional german fruited bread that is baked and sugared to look like the Christ child’s swaddling clothes. This is NOT fruitcake, it is Christmas manna. Mom’s recipe came out of her head — handed down from her mother and aunt. In mid-December, our kitchen became an assembly line, with sweet, fruity loaves at various stages of development. While I’m no longer big into Christmas, I still honour this one family tradition and bake a batch or two around Christmas time from Bernard Clayton’s recipe. It tastes like my childhood and makes me happy, a little bit sad, and very grateful. And when it is a little stale, its makes the best toast ever.
I reckon today is an appropriate day to add Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads to the Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas. My well-worn copy is the 1987 edition. There have been subsequent revisions, the most recent in 2006, that incorporate newer technology, like bread machines. But the basic spirit that makes this cookbook an all time great remains.
Bernard Clayton gave up a high-powered journalistic career in New York and Chicago after a mystical bread experience during a bike trip around Europe in the mid-1960s. He moved to Bloomington, Indiana, worked for Indiana University, and pursued his fascination with bread. His wonder at the art and science of bread making shines through this book. He prefaces many of the recipes with an introduction, perhaps describing the bread’s history, how it fits in to the wider world of breads, and how he discovered it. Clayton was not professionally trained — he taught himself to bake — and the un-jaded joy of the gifted amateur is contagious. I defy you to pick up this book and not immediate begin tagging recipes. This is one of those cookbooks you’ll want to sit down and read, cover-to-cover.
In addition to the Christmas Stollen (my copy automatically opens to that page), I love the Dilly Casserole Bread (a 1960s staple), the Sour Dill Rye Bread (which uses pickle brine as the liquid), the Portuguese Sweet Bread, and the German White Bread with Caraway. My New Zealand sourdough starter, which has been going for two years, now, began with his Honey Starter. Our sourdough starter is like a member of the family. It’s less demanding than the dogs. It only needs is to be fed and cuddled once a week. And it doesn’t have accidents in the house. I had to leave my previous starter in the US when we moved to New Zealand.
The Ministry of Primary Industries here was unlikely to look kindly upon a glob of dough teeming with microbes, no matter how yummy. It found a happy home with my friends Mary and Wade. They let me visit when I go back to Virginia. Mary gave up baking bread for Lent one year, so I know she is a good mother (and her dogs are way better behaved than mine).
This is the most comprehensive handbook for the home bread baker I’ve ever found. It was written based on thousands of hours of Clayton’s own trial and error in his own home kitchen. I’m reasonably confident that there is nothing that a home baker needs to know about bread making that isn’t in this book. If you try to bake bread, and something goes wrong, Clayton will tell you why. Most of the recipes include separate instructions for mixing the doughs by hand, in a stand mixer, or in a food processor.
My copy does not include bread machine instructions or recipes, which is fine by me. If you want to make bread, make bread. Don’t be afraid of it. Hold the dough, knead it, throw it, slam it — as Clayton advises, “don’t gentle the dough” — watch it rise, punch it down, knead it some more, and feel it come to life under your warm touch. Bread making, unlike some other kinds of baking, is very forgiving. And much cheaper than therapy.
And nothing beats a slice of hot, fresh bread with butter. It tastes like love.