With three energetic kids and a rather lethargic husband to take care of, my mum always seemed to be on her toes. Along with the strength of a bull, she possessed supreme efficiency. No, she wasn’t anywhere near the delicate, fabled Victorian ladies who fainted at the slightest mental or physical effort – I think those tight corsets weren’t designed for any kind of human activity. Recall, their essential handbag item was smelling salt! It is another matter that mum enjoyed reading these fables, I am sure, as humorous accounts of a distant life.
Every week day started with a quickly put together breakfast of eggs and bread. Brittania and later Modern were synonymous with the very white rectangular loaves that found great favour with Delhi dwellers as a convenient and “healthier” option to ghee-soaked breakfast staple paranthas!! Sandwiches were “in” and many kids carried them to school too for lunch along with Amul cheese cubes. I came to dislike bread quite strongly. Just didn’t like the taste. And the constipated kid that I was, I think my body was telling me something, something about limiting in-take of maida/all purpose flour.
As a grown-up twelve-year old I moved to a day-boarding school. I started to look forward to breakfast eagerly. Sadly, most days, here too the 650 odd kids were served the ubiquitous factory loaves. I found myself in a thin company of less than ten kids who dragged their feet around while the 640 others stampeded into the dining room for bread, milk, eggs and the rest. On some absolutely beautiful days we did get poha or upma. Soon, mum started feeding me breakfast at home with no mention of bread – I was back to ghee-soaked – and if you ask me, very healthy – paranthas, my constipation was cured! For years, I didn’t look at bread, I didn’t talk about it, and though it made me squirm, I even rudely refused bread-based starters at parties.
I discovered bread during a work trip to Europe. Fresh out of the oven, with a variety to choose from, and not all very white, it ended up being a very pleasant and life-changing event. For years I couldn’t find anything faintly close to that in Delhi – though the buns in a remote and very traditional Pahalgaon bakery were just amazing. I started to imagine that I, who knew nothing about cooking forget baking, could use that wedding-gift OTG to bake my own whole wheat bread – I have to say I was at my imaginative best!
Failure after failure taught me that baking a cake was not related in a single bit to baking bread. Those were two different species, one where diligence and practice could lead to some decent results, the other was in the hands of the good lord up there. Or so it seemed like during those trying years. Meanwhile, delicious whole wheat and multi grain bread had started to become available easily in our city, and or some unknown reason bread became my favourite and only breakfast food. I gave up the idea of baking bread, blaming it on the region’s extreme heat and cold.
A decade later we moved next to the coast with temperatures ranging from 20 degree centigrade to 35 C through out the year. I started to feel lucky and tried my hand at a hundred percent whole wheat bread again. The results were better, for one thing the dough rose beautifully. But still far from what I wanted, to compensate for all those bread-less years that I had allowed to go past. I just couldn’t do without my morning toast now! Additionally, there was the lovely Poi available, baked three times in a day, from the local bakery. I started to lose my resolve.
Then one day I stumbled into a workshop where a retired IT professional was sharing his bread baking journey – it seemed like such a boring cliché – along with buttered pieces of three lovely looking loaves that he had baked that day. Having tasted that bread, I started to pay attention to what was being said – those loaves were divine. This event became a turning point in my back-breaking, mind-numbing, decade-long trek to bake a decent loaf. The two main changes that I made to my process were – I started adding all purpose flour, and after the dough rose, I refrigerated it anywhere from 4 to 10 hours before baking.
For the last four years I have been baking 30-70 (all purpose-whole wheat) bread every week, daughter approves it, S does too. It is a gift that my neighbours shamelessly ask me for. A particular two-year old will eat only this bread and none other. This kind of gloating over one’s skills inevitably gets hit by a rude shock, at least in my case.
One evening, as I prepared the warm water, jaggery powder and dry yeast mix, I realised I was out of all purpose flour. Feeling adventurous, I dusted out the last table spoon into the liquid mix and decided to wait for a starter to develop. After 45 minutes I kneaded a dough with this bubbling, watery fluid and 3 cups of whole wheat flour. I was hopeful and made a mental note to check the dough after an hour at 10pm and safely store it in the fridge to bake next morning.
As I entered the kitchen at 7am next day, that rude shock I had mentioned earlier, toppled me over! I had forgotten to check the dough. It had remained at room temperature – at that time of the year 23-25 dgrees C- for about 10 hours, I could clearly hear its merry fermented laughter. I had to hold the wall and sit on the stool to get my balance back. Along with the bread, I had lost all self-respect. I tried to look for the silver lining – Viola!, I had nothing to lose anymore! So, purely as an experiment, I kneaded that over-grown mass, set it on the dusted baking tray, and put it to bake after 20 minutes.
I was expecting the worst but…I had reached another, this time an entirely unexpected, turning point…
- 170 ml or ¾ cup luke warm water
- 1 table spoon jaggery powder or sugar
- 2 heaped tea spoons dry active yeast
- 1 table spoon maida/all purpose flour
- 375 gms or thereabouts of whole wheat flour (this also works well with 125gms maida and 250gms whole wheat flour)
- 1 table spoon melted butter (my heart specialist brother-in-law advices against oil)
- 1 tea spoon salt
- In a large mixing bowl add lukewarm water (heat for 30 seconds in the microwave) to jaggery powder.
- Add yeast.
- Cover and let it rest till the yeast balls rise up forming a foamy, bubbly layer at the top – about 10-15 minutes depending on room temperature.
- Add all purpose flour, mix and leave this fluid covered in a warm corner of the kitchen for about 30-45 minutes till you see the mix foamed up.
- Now add butter, salt and whole wheat flour.
- If you want more sweetness in the bread add a table spoon of jaggery powder/sugar/honey – I don’t.
- Knead the mix with your fingers bringing it together in a soft moist dough.
- Add flour if you need to.
- Transfer to a bigger, slightly oiled bowl.
- Cover and rest for about an hour or more till the dough has about doubled in size. Refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight.
- Once you bring out the dough from the fridge it would have grown further, not too much but a little.
- Punch the air out of the dough, gently work it pulling the dough towards the underside to achieve a smooth top – use a little oil or flour on your palms and fingers if that helps.
- Set the dough on a baking tray dusted with flour.
- Cover with a big bowl to allow for some room as the dough rises again.
- Once it is one and half to double its size make a generous incision on the top that will allow steam to release.
- You may also make incisions on the side if that pleases you.
- Bake at 170-180 degree C for about 25-30 minutes.
- Once cooked, the loaf should sound hollow when you knock the top.
- Take the tray out of the oven, remove the bread immediately with a spatula and transfer to a rack to cool.
- At this time you can brush the crust with butter to soften it if you’re not too fond of bread crust.
- Cut slices only after the loaf is completely cool.
- Cover it in a cloth napkin and keep in a cool corner.
- If you have leftovers for more than 24 hours, refrigerate.
- Warm/toast it with butter before eating once out of the fridge.