Breaking Bread

Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year.  And I mean the end.  The very last week.  Ambitious, yes?  I decided I could do it.

Guess how many I made this week?

Yeah.

One.

So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway.  I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway.  And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how?  By posting twice in one week.  So it goes, I suppose…

87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.

I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot.  It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions.  So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)

½ cup craisins

I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster.  Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball.  Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge.  I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.

This is certainly not a ball.  But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands.  After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.

Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again.  This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball.  I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet.  Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.

Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour.  The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.

I waited a few hours to try some.  When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.

It tasted good.  A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself.  But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture.  This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast.  It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.

Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage.  Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread.  If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.

But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there.  Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing.  Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato.  Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable.  I could eat these every day.  I could eat them for every meal.  Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros.  Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch.  Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese.  And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie.  I might be obsessed.

So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes.  And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be?  But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?

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