Requiem for Buttermilk Bread

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Gluten has been banished from my diet, but I cannot get this bread out of my mind.

If there are seven stages of grief involved when a foodie gives up wheat (denial, bitterness, denial, bitterness, denial, bitterness, permanent irritation), then I’m probably at the denial/bitterness stage.

I dream of this bread.

The original recipe makes two loaves in a food processor. My family loved the results so much that I started doubling the recipe and making it in a standing mixer. Precisely for this bread, I upgraded my KitchenAid mixer to the super-duper professional wannabe model, a 29-pound behemoth with a six-quart mixing bowl that could handle 10 cups of all-purpose flour without the dough crawling perilously close to the motor housing.The bigger mixer managed beautifully, and I turned out four loaves of this manna every so often, to great acclaim from eager eaters. Buttered or plain, toasted or cool, day-old or fresh, this is wonderful bread.

Crescent Dragonwagon‘s book, Soup & Bread, is where I found this recipe. She’s a lauded author of many cookbooks, novels, and children’s books, a sometime resident of Arkansas, a food essayist, and writing teacher. A year after her treatise on cornbread was published in 2007, she gave a talk at the annual Arkansas Literary Festival. Afterward, she signed books. We chatted briefly as I handed her my copy of The Cornbread Gospels to sign. I really enjoy your work, I told her, but my very, very favorite recipe you’ve published, the one that gets the most play at my house, is Frannie’s Fast, Fabulous Buttermilk Bread from Soup & Bread. Crescent leaned forward in agreement, “Ooooh, that’s a good one, isn’t it?” she said.

It is. Sob.

I suggest you make this bread on a day when you have to be home anyway. It’s a little time consuming but not labor-intensive. After the initial preparation, the rest can be done between loads of laundry or episodes of Mad Men, or while you’re on hold with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

By the way, this year’s Arkansas Literary Festival will be April 24-27, 2014.

Buttermilk Bread, adapted from a recipe in Soup & Bread (A Country Inn Cookbook), by Crescent Dragonwagon, © 1992, published by Workman Publishing Company Inc., New York, NY. Since I’m not sure how many home cooks have great big mixers, I am reverting to the measurements as written in the original recipe. If you want to make this two-loaf size in a regular standing mixer, go right ahead. If you want to double the recipe, you’ll need to procure a behemoth model.

The original recipe requires the cook to proof the yeast in a little warm water. I like using instant yeast instead, incorporating it with the dry ingredients. To be safe, I still add the 1/4 cup water that would have been used for proofing in with the buttermilk. 

Equipment: a food processor big enough to accommodate dough for 2 loaves of bread

2 cups Bulgarian-style buttermilk (Why Bulgarian? Because it’s extra thick and tangy, and because Crescent says so. Don’t do as I did once and offer your father a tall glass of Bulgarian buttermilk with his favorite cornbread chunked in, southern-style. It’s undrinkable, and your father will come up sputtering and watery-eyed.)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra butter, softened, for greasing the loaf pans

1/4 cup water

5 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon instant dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons sugar

1. Prepare a large bowl for the bread to rise in by smearing the inside lightly with a layer of vegetable oil. Set aside.

2. Combine the butter, cut into pieces, with the buttermilk and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat until the butter melts. (The buttermilk may curdle, but that’s okay.) Remove from the burner and set aside until the mixture is lukewarm.

3. Into the bowl of a food processor outfitted with a knife blade, put 4 cups of the flour along with the yeast, salt, baking soda, and sugar. (If you have a different processor blade designed for bread-making, use that if you prefer. I use the knife blade because it’s always in my processor. It’s about ease, people.) Combine with several presses of the pulse button. Then, with the machine running, pour the lukewarm buttermilk mixture through the feed tube. Process until the dough melds and forms a rough ball. If the dough is very moist, add the remaining flour, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until the consistency is right. (If you start to smell rubber burning, the dough is too dense for your processor. Remove the dough immediately and finish incorporating the extra flour by hand, proceeding to step 4. And save your nickels for another food processor, because the one you have is almost shot. Buy a bigger one next time, says this voice of experience, especially if you like bread. Sob.)

4. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for several minutes, adding small amounts of flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. When the dough is elastic and easily shapes into a smooth mound, put it upside down in the oiled boil, twirling the bowl vigorously to coat the sides of the dough with oil. Turn the dough over so that the smoothest side faces up. Cover the bowl loosely with a dishtowel or other soft cloth, and let sit in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.

5. Punch the dough down in the bowl, cover with the cloth, and let it rise another hour, until it has doubled in size again. Punch the dough down again and move it to the floured surface. Knead it briefly, then cover it just with the cloth to let it rest for 10 minutes. As you wait, prepare two loaf pans by coating their insides with a light smear of soft butter.

6. After the dough has rested for 10 minutes, uncover it, then divide it into 2 equal parts, shaping them into loaves. Place in the buttered pans, cover with cloth, and let rise again for another hour. Start preheating the oven to 350°F. about halfway through this last rise.

7. Place the loaves in the center of the hot oven and bake until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. Technically, the bread needs to cool completely before being sliced for best shape and taste. Good luck with waiting.

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