With three energetic kids and a rather lethargic husband to take care of, my Mum always seemed to be on her toes. She wasn’t anywhere close to being like a delicate, fabled Victorian lady who fainted at the slightest mental or physical effort – I think those tight corsets weren’t designed for any kind of human activity. It is another matter that Mum enjoyed reading these fables, I am sure, as humorous accounts of a distant life.
Every day of the week started with a quickly put together breakfast of eggs and bread. Britannia, and later Modern, were synonymous with the very white rectangular loaves that were quite popular among people in Delhi as a convenient and “healthier” option to the ghee-soaked breakfast staple of paranthas. Sandwiches were “in” and many kids carried them to school for lunch along with Amul cheese cubes.
I came to dislike bread quite strongly – I just didn’t like the taste. And the constipated kid that I was, I think my body was telling me something, something about limiting the intake of maida/all purpose flour.
At the age of 12, I joined a day-boarding school. I started to look forward to breakfast eagerly. Sadly, on most days, the 650-odd kids were served ubiquitous factory loaves. I found myself in 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. And my constipation was cured.
For many 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. But I couldn’t find anything faintly close to that in Delhi – though the buns in a remote and very traditional Pahalgam 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 in no way related 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. Or so it seemed during those trying years. Meanwhile, delicious whole wheat and multi-grain bread had started to become available easily in our city, and for 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 20-35 degrees Celsius throughout the year. I started to feel lucky and tried my hand at a 100% whole wheat bread again. The results were better, for one thing the dough rose beautifully. But it was 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 a day at 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 – and 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 four to ten hours before baking.
For the last four years, I have been baking 30-70 (all purpose-whole wheat) loaves of bread every week. My 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 three cups of whole wheat flour. I was hopeful and made a mental note to check the dough after an hour at 10 pm and safely store it in the fridge to bake next morning.
As I entered the kitchen at 7 am, that rude shock I had mentioned earlier, toppled me over. I had forgotten to check the dough the night before. It had remained at room temperature – at that time of the year 23-25 degrees Celsius – for about ten hours. I could clearly hear its merry fermented laughter.
I had to hold the wall and sit on the stool to compose myself. Along with the bread, I had lost all self-respect. I tried to look for the silver lining. Voila! I had nothing to lose anymore! So, purely as an experiment, I kneaded that overgrown mass, set it on the dusted baking tray, and put it to bake after 20 minutes.
I was expecting the worst but I had, in fact, reached another entirely unexpected turning point in my bread-making journey.
170 ml or ¾ cup lukewarm water
1 table spoon jaggery powder or sugar
2 heaped tea spoons dry active yeast
1 table spoon maida/all purpose flour
375 gm or thereabouts of whole wheat flour (this also works well with 125 gm maida and 250 gm whole wheat flour)
1 table spoon melted butter (my heart specialist brother-in-law advices against oil)
1 teaspoon 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 maida, 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 four hours or overnight. Once you bring out the dough from the fridge, it would have grown further – not too much but a little. Rest it till it comes to room temperature. Then 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 Celcius 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 – I don’t, we love the crust. Cut slices only after the loaf is completely cool. Cover it in a cloth napkin and keep in a cool corner. If it lasts for more than 24 hours, refrigerate. Warm/toast it before eating once out of the fridge.
Shalini is forced to cook mostly because restaurant food does not agree with her, but also because she lives in the fabled belief that one day she will impress her daughter with her creations.