Last week, I helped make the largest amount of bread dough I’ve ever done at once – without the use of a machine. It was kind of a big deal.
I have always loved making my own bread, and kneading it with my two hands (as opposed to using an electric mixer), but I’ve only ever made enough for 1 or 2 loaves at once. Apart from one baking class that I took a couple of years ago, I’ve never worked with fresh yeast, either.
Here in Switzerland, we are staying in a house that is over 100 years old. I think it used to be a farm house, but over the years (three generations of the same family at least have lived here), they’ve upgraded the house to keep it modern. A few things remain from the original structure, and one of those (amazing) things is a wood fire oven that sits in between the kitchen and dining room. I can’t really begin to describe how exciting this was to me.
Maja told me that she used to use the oven at least once a week to bake bread for her family. Because firing up the oven is a bit of a production (it takes about 2 hours for the wood to burn and properly heat up the oven), she typically only bakes large quantities of bread in it. We’re talking 1 kg of flour at a time, here. And when she asked me if I wanted to take a day trip to a different part of Switzerland, or stay at home and bake bread with her, you’d better believe I chose to stay at home and bake bread. What?
The Night Before
Maja decided to start the dough the night before so that we could let it rest overnight and develop a little more naturally. Apparently, the longer you let it sit, the less yeast you need to make the bread with. In the summer, she said you can’t leave the dough overnight because it’s too hot – so this is one win for the Winter!
First things first – she brought out a giant wooden trough. Seriously, this thing was huge. You could definitely fit a human or animal baby in it comfortably. Then she filled it with 1kg of some wholemeal (wholegrain) flour that she got directly from the farmer (I love Switzerland), added about a block and a half of fresh yeast and some water. According to her, the only way to knead dough is to mix it with your hands. By the way, she’s got fantastic arms. I now know why.
Crumble up the yeast and mix thoroughly with the flour. Slowly add water until it starts to form a sticky dough.
Maja started it off and then let me
play knead. It was a real workout, but so much fun. We alternated between adding water and then eventually more flour until she was satisfied with the consistency.
Then we put that dough to bed under two damp tea towels and a wooden cover outside in their shed overnight. Since it’s Winter here, their shed is like a giant refrigerator. If there’s anything that makes me appreciate Winter, this will probably be it. And maybe cross-country skiing, because even though I have yet to try it, I’m convinced I will love it.
The Next Day
The next morning, the dough looked like this. It was amazing to see how much the dough expanded over night. The night before, it was barely touching the edges, and in the morning, it was hugging every corner of the trough.
About two hours before we planned to bake the bread, we lit up the logs and let them burn down. I was really surprised to see how many logs Maja put in that oven!
Until I saw that they had burned down to this…
While the logs were burning, we tended to the dough. Maja said I did a good job kneading because as soon as she cut into the dough, you could see a lot of air bubbles.
She scraped the dough onto a floured (granite) surface and then divided them up in to large and small loaves of bread.
So many loaves of bread.
When she was satisfied with the state of the wood in the oven, she scraped the wood embers into a chamber (I don’t know how else to describe it), so that she could get ready to place the loaves of bread into the oven to bake.
Do you have to slash the tops for any reason other than it looking pretty? Either way, I’d do it again.
I could have stood there and watched the bread bake the entire time. Instead I went for a run to pass the time and work up a solid bread eating appetite. Priorities. Note, Maja did take out the bread after a few minutes to rotate them and make sure they all baked evenly.
She scrapped off the remaining pieces of dough from the trough and fed them to her chickens. Apparently if you feed your chickens well, they produce better tasting eggs. Science! Seriously, can I stay here forever?And then there was bread.