Why don’t we write love letters to our friends? Friends are the life savers and the cheerleaders of our lives, the pick-ups where we left-offs, the greatest of forgivers and the smallest of takers. And friends are always there. True friends are game changers. With them we get through this life with fewer scratches.
Marcus Cicero once said, “What sweetness is left in life, if you take away friendship? Robbing life of friendship is like robbing the world of the sun. A true friend is more to be esteemed than kinsfolk.”
My friend, Debbie Whitehead, is the quintessential true friend and Renaissance woman, qualities to marvel in anyone. Debbie is a painter, a lover of thread art, embroidery, a quilter, and she cranks out more hand-made toys for her grandchildren than Santa’s elves.
Most important to her grandchildren, Deb takes great pride in her cake decorating skills. Her granddaughter gets to challenge her each year to design and decorate a really difficult birthday cake. Deb has created everything from a hamburger and fries birthday cake to a skull.
Deb is also passionate about food and her friends and family are grateful. Deb is that “cook,” the one whose food you ask for specifically at the party so you can be sure and taste it before it’s gone.
I have delighted in learning from Deb, but if there’s one gift she’s given me that I’d like to pay forward this holiday season, it would be the gift of baking bread. I’ve always wanted to be a formidable baker, but I’ve struggled in the past with my delivery. My husband’s favorite desert is Chocolate Meringue Pie, to which I replied, “No problem.”
An hour and a half later, I delivered that pie, as promised, in a drinking glass with a crazy straw. Solely used for effect, as I had hoped the crazy straw would distract him from the fact that the meringue and the pie crust were missing.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s your pie,” I replied, and there was silence. My spouse knows the look of defeat and he does not question it.
Needless to say, I conceded to the chocolate pie, but I’ve done well to supply my spouse with chocolate pie from Southern cooks all over the great state of Tennessee. You can bet that Debbie Whitehead’s chocolate pie makes my sweetheart forget about the fact that I turned one of the South’s most beloved treasures into a kid’s beverage.
It’s true, the pie left me feeling a little intimidated. If you’re like me, there are a lot of variables that come with baking a good, quality loaf of bread. Not to mention, too much talk of humidity levels, rising times, etc.
I like a full-proof recipe – I’m not really interested in a meteorology lesson, as I still can’t explain why the weather kept my chocolate pie from setting or my meringue from stiffening. Deb’s recipe avoids the fuss. There are a lot of directions, but the motions are quite simple, and once you’ve made a few loaves, you won’t believe how simple and enjoyable the process really is.
I forgot to mention that Deb harvests her own yeast. Now that’s truly Renaissance-level bread baking.
And so dear readers, I’m sharing the gift with you today, from a friend I shall always hold in the highest regard. Debbie was there to pull me up from the depths of my baking despair, and she has taken every last ounce of guess work out of making the perfect loaf of bread.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to Validity readers. I hope you’re kitchen will smell as wonderful this season as ours. God Bless!
Sourdough Loaf Bread
½ cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup starter
1 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Knox unflavored gelatin*
2 tablespoons butter, melted 3 tablespoons water
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
¼ cup mild, white shredded cheese**
1 cup bread flour
If using a bread machine, put the ingredients in the machine pan in the order shown in your machine’s manual. If mixing by hand, put water and starter in a bowl. Add sugar and yeast, then flour. To measure the flour, spoon it into a measuring cup, then scrap off the top, level with a knife.
Add the salt to the mixture and stir the flour in with a wooden spoon.
In a small bowl, add 3 tablespoons of water. Sprinkle the gelatin over the top and let it “gel” a few minutes. It will start to thicken. Add thickened gelatin and melted butter to the mixture. Then add the shredded cheese and mix until you have a soft dough. If you need more water or more flour, add it slowly, a tablespoon at a time.
If making by hand, knead several minutes until the dough is smooth and holds its shape. Place dough in greased bowl and let rise about one hour. Or, let the bread machine run through the dough cycle. When the machine stirs down the first rise, remove it. Knead dough enough to get a lot of the air bubbles out, shape and place in prepared bread pan. If mixing by hand, punch the dough down and continue with shaping.
Let the dough rise in the loaf pan about an hour, or until it has risen a couple of inches above the top of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees F 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 300 and bake another 10 minutes. Cool in the pan 15 minutes before turning bread onto a rack to cool completely before cutting.
*The original recipe called for 1 large egg. I discovered that using unflavored gelatin dissolved in water instead, makes the bread softer and allows it to stay fresh-tasting longer.
**Adding ¼ cup of white cheese to the dough is another discovery that happened quite by accident, but doing this was a game changer. Bread made with mild, white cheese in the dough will be as soft as commercial bread and it will stay soft and fresh-tasting for several days. The first time I did this I used cheddar. It worked and tasted great, but there was a little bit of the cheddar taste. So, I tried a mild, white cheese and it gave the bread all the benefits without interfering with the taste. I’m not sure how this would work if you make the bread by hand. I use a bread machine and it heats during the initial rise, so the cheese melts into the dough. If you don’t tell anyone that cheese is in the bread, they may never know.
2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not instant)
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Pour water into a 2-quart glass jar or bowl. Stir in honey to dissolve. Stir in yeast. Gradually stir in the flour. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel or paper towel (not plastic wrap) and place in a warm area.
Let mixture ferment 2-5 days, stirring daily to recombine. It will separate, don’t skip this step. Always stir with either a wooden spoon or a plastic spatula, never metal. It will rise and bubble like crazy for a few days, then settle back down.
After 5 days, discard all but about ¾ cup and feed again. Let it stand at room temperature overnight and repeat. It should then be ready to use in baking and can be stored in the refrigerator. The liquid that forms on the top of the starter is called hooch. Just stir it back into the starter before feeding or using.
FEEDING: Sourdough is a living organism (yum) so you have to feed it. I always feed the starter before I use it to make bread. Pour about ¾ cup starter into a bowl or jar. Add 1 cup unbleached all purpose flour and add a scant cup of water. Stir well and leave it on the counter until it’s bubbly and is increasing in volume. Stir down before you measure it for the recipe.
If you aren’t baking, the starter is good for two weeks without being fed; maybe longer but I wouldn’t take the chance. Just pour out all but about ¾ cup, and feed as usual. After several hours, cover and store in the refrigerator. If you want to make more starter or maybe share starter with a friend, just feed it more often. If you leave it out of the refrigerator, it actually needs to be feed every day so building up your supply or sharing isn’t a problem.
You can also capture wild yeast to make sourdough starter. Yeast is in the environment everywhere and it’s different everywhere. San Francisco sourdough bread is famous for its unique flavor. Likewise, where you live is going to have a different strain of yeast than what grows here. I don’t know what kind of wild yeast is in Hohenwald but it makes very good bread. Be aware though, if you decide to go on a wild yeast round-up, you have to be patient. It took us about 3 weeks of feeding it everyday to have starter that was vigorous enough to use in baking. If you stick to it and if you take care of your starter, it will last forever. There are people baking bread today with starter that’s been going for generations.
Variations for the Loaf Bread
Replace part of the unbleached flour with white whole wheat. Use ¾ cup whole wheat, ¼ cup unbleached all purpose flour, and 1 cup bread flour. Everything else is the same.
Blueberry, Lemon Bread
During the mixing stage, add 1 cup dried blueberries, zest of 1 lemon and ½ Teaspoon Lemon Extract.
Cranberry, Walnut Bread
To the dough, add 1 cup dried cranberries and ¾ cups chopped walnuts.
NOTE: Leave the cheese out when making the fruit and nut breads. The loaf will be too soft to support its weight.
Directions for Capturing Wild Yeast
In a clean mason jar, add ½ cup of filtered or otherwise non-chlorinated water. Add ½ cup of unbleached all purpose flour. Stir with a wooden spoon or chop stick. NO METAL. Cover the jar with a coffee filter or piece of cheesecloth. The mixture has to breathe and microbes from the air must be able to get in the mix.
You can also leave it uncovered but most people would rather protect their infant starter from dust and bugs. Keep the jar in a warm spot in your kitchen, away from air conditioner vents and fans. The top of the refrigerator is a good spot. On Day 2, feed the starter first thing in the morning with 1 Tablespoon flour and 1 Tablespoon Water. Repeat 4 or 5 times throughout the day, stirring well each time.
On Day 3, feed the starter ⅓ cup flour and ⅓ cup water. Continue to leave the sourdough starter in a warm place and feed it every day, covered with the coffee filter or cheesecloth. It should be making bubbles on the surface by now.
After 4 or 5 days you will need to pour off some of the starter so you have enough room to feed it but also to give the yeast in the starter a better ratio of food. After a few days a liquid will separate on top of the starter. Just stir it back in. At the point your starter starts bubbling vigorously and increasing in volume in the jar after being fed, it’s ready to use in baking.
Feed it, let it sit a couple of hours at room temperature until it’s bubbly again, stir well, measure what you need for the recipe, cover the jar tightly and refrigerate the rest. You can now start the 1 to 2 week feeding cycle. Remember though, if you’re using it more often, it’s okay to feed it more often. Just leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours after feeding before storing in the fridge again.
Melissa Wickline is a lover of historic places and funny, interesting people. She enjoys exploring and restoring old homes, art and discovering new places, cultures and food.