Strange Times Special 8: Tired—But Not of Bread

Strange Times is a newsletter that explores the weirdest news of 1921, one day at a time. If you dig that jazz age weirdness, preorder a copy of WESTSIDE SAINTS, coming your way on May 5th.

As you may have noticed, this newsletter is on a pandemic-induced hiatus. Although it would have been my pleasure to keep you entertained during isolation with tales of runaway horses and runaway heiresses, having my children home has cut my work day to two hours at best, putting Strange Times on hold until the daycares of the world reopen their doors.

I considered sending out a relevant special edition about sleeping sickness or influenza, but there’s enough of that kind of grim content out there right now. So I thought I’d share something useful instead.

In the first week of social distancing, my anxiety expressed itself through panic about food. Because sandwich bread is the thing that most often sends my family to the grocery store, I thought I could cut down on how often we had to go to the supermarket by baking my own. I’ve baked bread often in the past, but never produced a loaf square enough for sandwiches or big enough that it could stand up to more than a day of my family's appetite for carbs.

A little special equipment, a few weeks’ experimentation, and a whole lot of flour, and I've worked out a recipe for a squared off 13” loaf that's simple enough to make twice a week without taking me away from the kids or the few hours I have to write. The recipe is below. Try it out if you think your life would be improved by fresh bread.

A note on materials:

  • Grocery stores are, in the northeast anyway, sold out of yeast. You can buy yeast online, at Amazon and probably elsewhere. One advantage of this recipe, which is based on the classic No Knead recipe, is that it uses very little of this suddenly precious ingredient. Instant (also known as rapid rise) yeast and active dry yeast both work for this recipe. The active dry yeast seems to produce a softer loaf, and does not need to be bloomed before use—just dump it in with everything else.

  • This recipe requires a 13” Pullman pan. This is the one I have, and I'm loving it. If you don't want to order such a pan, well, make different bread.

  • I measure flour by weight when I’m baking bread, as it’s more precise. Although conversions from weight to volume aren’t very precise, you could make this bread with 3.5 cups of all purpose flour and 2 cups of wheat flour.

Isolation Sandwich Bread

  • 1 lb all purpose flour

  • .5 lbs whole wheat flour

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 3/4 teaspoons yeast

  • 2.5 cups 70° water

  1. Mix dry ingredients in your largest mixing bowl. Add water. Stir until water is fully incorporated and dough looks like a wet, gloppy mess. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise for 18 hours. (I have let it rise for as long as 21 hours without ill-effect.)

  2. Dump dough onto a floured cutting board. Sprinkle with flour and, using a bench scraper or your hands, fold dough onto itself twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.

  3. Grease the inside of your bread pan using butter or cooking spray. Using hands or bench scraper, slop the dough into the pan. Using spatula, gently spread the dough until it fills the pan from front to back. (It does not need to be evenly spread.)

  4. Cover pan with lid and let dough rise for 2 hours. 30 minutes before rise is complete, preheat oven to 450°.

  5. Put pan in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Using oven mitts, remove the lid from the pullman pan. Bake bread for another 20 minutes, until loaf is brown on top and the internal temperature registers 205°. If at any point you smell scorching, reduce heat to 400°.

  6. Flip bread onto a cooling rack. Let cool for 2-3 hours, until completely cool to the touch. Slice and eat, storing dough at room temperature in a plastic bag (if you want it to get squishy) or in the covered pullman pan with the cut side pressed against the wall of the pan (if you want to maintain your lovely crust).

It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it’s probably not more than 10 minutes of work, spread out over a full day. And I guarantee it tastes better than Ward’s Bread, no matter what Old Jacob O’Grouch thinks.

Can’t find yeast? Don’t want to buy a weirdly long bread pan? If you can get baking soda and cornmeal, my battle-tested cornbread recipe may work for you. A few notes:

  • Leave out the apples and onions if you want a more classic southern cornbread. Grease the skillet and preheat it with the oven to ensure a nice brown crust. Without apples and onions, the recipe works well for corn muffins, too.

  • If you prefer sweet cornbread, add 2 tablespoons of sugar with the dry ingredients.

  • Can’t get buttermilk? Use two cups of clabbered milk: whole milk mixed with 2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

Akers Family Cornbread

  • 1 tablespoon butter

  • 2 apples, thinly sliced

  • 2 onions, thinly sliced

  • 2 eggs, beaten

  • 2 cups buttermilk

  • 1/2 cup Wesson oil

  • 2 cups yellow corn meal

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

  • Frozen corn (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 425°. Melt butter in cast iron skillet. Sauté onions and apples in skillet until nice and soft.

2. Mix eggs, buttermilk, and vegetable oil in a large mixing bowl. Add corn meal, baking soda, and salt. Stir to combine. Stir in half of apples and onions and frozen corn, if using. Pour into cast iron skillet. Spread remaining apples and onions on top.

3. Bake 20-25 minutes, until deep brown on top.

And of course, if you can’t get any leavening product at all, well—that’s what roti is for.

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