I have to say I’m excited about this project. Really, really excited. What’s been keeping me up at night though is which recipe should I start with? Some of you emailed with suggestions of recipes you hope to see in this blog–I appreciated those emails because it reminded me of two recipes I’d forgotten about. Then there are the more or less fifty recipes that I’d jotted down on my iphone, but a list doesn’t tell me where to begin just what should be included. The extrovert in me voted for flashy and spectacular. Or I could start with something seminal and life changing (in a cooking sort of way). Major cooking influences in my life? Chronologically? Since this is the week of my actual birthday I thought about starting off with cake… When I finally stopped waffling about there was really is only one place to start and that is with Grammy Caldwell’s oatmeal bread. Grammy Caldwell is the real reason that I became a professional cook. Or if not the exact reason, then the how of my having the confidence to go down a path of food for more than thirty-odd years.
She showed me that cooking was like breathing–not something you thought about very much, but something that you did every day. Cooking had rules and structure, but it also had freedom to play (with some recipes). Cooking allowed you to feed people; your food in turn could show them you loved them; and of course cooking is just plain fun. I grew up cooking and wanting to cook largely because of my Grandmother. One of the first recipes I remember making with her was oatmeal bread. Fragrant with molasses my family and I could eat an entire loaf warm from the oven and slathered with butter. If it lasted into the second day then it made brilliant toast. Any way you sliced it, it was heaven.
Grammy got her original Oatmeal bread recipe from Mrs. Fleuth, a German woman who helped her around the house. Mrs. F. lived down the street from Grammy and would come in during the week to help her with the washing, baking, and child-care sometime in the 1930’s. In a classic Grammy-move she tinkered with the original recipe until she had made it her own. Wheat germ took the place for some of the oatmeal, extra salt was added so the bread’s taste didn’t fall flat. I remember making two loaves with her each week–one for her (and Grampy) and one for us. This ultimately became the first loaf of bread I taught my bread baking students at a Smith College January interterm to bake because at that point (the tender age of 20) it was ingrained in me as the bread. The bread of my childhood, the bread of Grammy, in short the best bread ever!
Grammy Caldwell’s Oatmeal Bread
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
1/4 cup toasted wheatgerm
2 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon butter
1/2 cup mollases
1 package dry active yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
Combine the oatmeal, wheatgerm, salt and butter in a bowl. Pour boiling water over and when the butter has softened pour in the molasses but don’t rinse out the measuring cup. Let mixture sit until cool. In the measuring cup you used for the molasses pour the lukewarm water in and sprinkle on the yeast. This was one of Grammy’s tricks for feeding the yeast. When yeast has formed a foam on top
add it to the oatmeal mixture along with some of the flour. The dough at this point will be sticky and shaggy. Add more flour (but not all) and dump onto a counter to kneed. Kneed for ten minutes, adding more of the flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to your hands or the counter. You’ll know when it’s finished because the texture will be like a baby’s bum–soft and squishy. Lightly coat the dough with some oil or softened butter and return to the bowl to rise until doubled covered with a clean dishcloth. The timing of this step really depends on the weather.
When the dough has doubled have two bread pans greased and waiting (Grammy used crisco, I use butter). Punch down the dough, kneed for 2-3 minutes and divide dough into two equal sized pieces. It may be helpful to use a little flour to keep things from sticking but you don’t want to incorporate too much more flour at this point. Place the loaves into the bread pans and cover with the cloth. Let rise until double. Again this is a weather/temperature thing so times vary.
When the dough has crested the tops of the pans preheat the oven to 400ºF. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until when you slide a loaf out and tap on the bottom it sounds hollow. Cool on a rack. Grammy always stored her loaves in quilted plastic bags which I haven’t seen in years. I just use whatever is in my drawer. Of course one loaf always seems to disappear before it needs to be put into a bag.