Today Ed and I made bread. We used the recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book, my mom’s stained, yellowed copy from the 70’s. It has her name — her maiden name — written inside the front cover in her youthful handwriting. I highly recommend buying this book, as it has lots of great explanations, illustrations, variations, and recipes. Not to mention, it’s the quintessential hippy bread book, and reading it is a truly peaceful experience. As an added bonus, the book is deeply local for me, having been written at the Tassajara Zen Center in Carmel Valley (near Monterey, where I grew up), and published in Berkeley a few blocks from where I lived in college. The author, Edward Espe Brown, still lives in the Bay Area, up in Marin County.
I remember my mom making bread quite regularly when I was growing up, undoubtedly taking her cues from the Tassajara Bread Book. Baking bread is one of those activities that’s uniquely suited to being at home all day raising children — it doesn’t take much active time, but you do have to attend to it every hour or so. And it’s interesting to find that, so many years later, my experience baking bread (knowing what it should look like, how it should feel, and how I should handle the dough) is a largely intuitive process. I suspect that this is due to my mom showing me how it was done when I was young. I’m deeply grateful for that, and today I really enjoyed turning around and sharing that knowledge with Ed.
The recipe in the book is very general and has lots of room for variation. For the sake of posterity, here is exactly what we did this time. It took all day and has yielded us with two loaves of perfect, delicious wheat bread, which should last us a couple of weeks.
Tassajara Whole Wheat Bread
3 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (1 package)
1/3 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cup unbleached white flour
Rest of the bread:
1 1/4 tablespoon sea salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups wheat bran
2 cups whole wheat flour
plus 1 to 1 1/2 cups flour for kneading
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Stir in molasses. Stir in 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cup unbleached white flour until a thick batter is formed. Beat well with a spoon (100 strokes). Let rise 1 hour in a warm area– an oven that has been heated and turned off is great, but don’t let it get too hot or the yeast will die!
Rest of the bread:
Sprinkle sea salt over the top of the sponge. Pour vegetable oil on top of that. Carefully FOLD the batter until the salt and oil are incorporated. Be gentle and don’t stir roughly; the more tears you make, the less elastic the dough will be. One cup at a time, carefully fold in the wheat bran and 2 cups whole wheat flour until they are well incorporated and the dough becomes stiffer and pulls away from the edges of the bowl.
Turn out the dough on a well-floured wooden surface — I use a large cutting board with rubber feet. Scrape extra bits from the bowl onto your dough ball. Knead bread for 10-15 minutes, sprinkling more flour on the board as needed to keep it from sticking. Knead by folding the dough in half towards you, then use the heel of your hand to push inward towards the board. Use your body weight! Turn the dough a quarter-turn and repeat the process. Fold, push, turn. After 10-15 minutes, the dough will be relatively stiff, elastic, and smooth.
Put a bit of vegetable oil in the bowl you used to mix the dough in. Put the kneaded dough back in the bowl, creased side up. Flip it over so the crease is on the bottom. Spread the oil over the surface evenly — it will prevent a crust from forming on the dough. Place a damp towel over the top of the bowl and place the bowl in a warm (but not too hot) area to rise. Let it rise for 50 minutes.
Punch dough down, using a fist and driving it firmly straight down. Punch it about 25 times. Flip it over so the punched side is on the bottom, cover with damp towel, and let rise for another 40 minutes.
Take dough out of bowl and place on cutting board. Form it into a ball by gently tugging the sides around and tucking them underneath. Dough should be elastic enough to not tear. Using a large, sharp knife, cut ball in half to form two equal portions of dough. Form each of these into balls in the same manner. Let rest for 5 minutes, and while you’re waiting lightly oil two 9″ bread pans.
When the 5 minutes is up, knead each ball briefly, about 5 or 6 times apiece. Form into loaves by rolling each ball into a cylinder. Place them in the pan crease side up, and, without squishing it, spread the dough outward so it fills the pan length-wise. Allow the dough to rise in a warm area for another 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F.
With a sharp knife or razor blade, slash the top of each loaf 3 or 4 times to give the steam a way to escape. (We added sesame seeds to the top of one loaf but they didn’t really stick. The book suggests brushing with an egg wash for a shiny, brown top, but that’s not vegan so we skipped it. I might try brushing it with vegetable oil next time to get the seeds to stick.) Bake for about one hour. When done, bread will be crusty on top and will “resound with a deep hollow thump” when firmly tapped. Immediately remove from loaf pans and let cool on a cooling rack. You can eat it while it’s still warm, or, for clean slices, let it cool for at least 1 hour.
Enjoy! This bread is great for sandwiches, toast, etc.