Thursday, January 19, 2012

Spinster in the Kitchen Guest Post: One Mother of a Sweet Potato Bread

This month's Spinster in the Kitchen post is a guest post by one of my favorite solo living ladies, my mother!  That's right folks, I did not burst forth onto this earth fully formed in all my spinsterific glory nor was I raised in the wild by a secret tribe of spinster wolves...I had parents. 

Though my mother may have insisted that my brother and I both learned how to cook before we left home to find our way out into the wide and wild world for practical reasons (everyone should know how to feed themselves), her kitchen lessons planted in me the seeds of what became a life long love of cooking.  The knowledge she shared has served me, and those who have shared my table, quite well over the years and I am grateful for it. 

Today she shares her Sweet Potato Bread with you...

One Mother of a Sweet Potato Bread

"How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"  --Julia Child

According to the website “On the curriculum vitae of a foodie, ‘eating’ is listed as a hobby.”  I would add “cooking” to that definition.  So, when someone asks me “Why do something as complicated and time consuming as baking bread when you live alone?” the answer is simple – cooking and eating are my hobbies.  Making bread is one of my favorite creative activities and  eating a slice of my homemade bread still hot from the oven slathered with butter is one of my greatest gastronomic pleasures  (it has to be butter – no margarine allowed – yes, I can tell the difference and it is really easy for me to “believe it’s not butter.”)    With that rationale out of the way, let me tell you about my most recent bread endeavor.

I discovered a recipe for Potato Bread in Deborah Madison’s, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (p. 664 if you’re interested).   I made it twice, loved it and received rave reviews from folks with whom I shared it.  While discussing the merits of this bread with my sister, we agreed that the mashed potato could be replaced by mashed sweet potato (or squash or pumpkin).   I had already substituted whole wheat flour for part of the white flour in the recipe and this new possibility sounded too good to not try.   So let me show you how I make Sweet Potato Bread.

Sweet Potato Bread the Basic Recipe
¼ cup warm water
2 ¼ tsp active dry yeast (1 package)
½ tsp maple syrup or molasses
1 ½ cups hot water
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 tbl softened butter
2 tsp salt
1 cup mashed sweet potato*
4 cups white flour
3 cups whole wheat flour

*Mashed Sweet Potato – You have a couple of options here.  You can buy a can of sweet potatoes and puree them.  Make sure they are bare naked sweet potatoes – not sweetened or flavored with anything.  I prefer baking couple of sweet potatoes, peeling them and pureeing them.  I use my nifty Braun stick and the end result appears in the photo to the right.

I also like to have everything “mise en place” (French for “everything in its place) before I start to cook.

The butter & ¼ cup water are in the microwave
softening and warming respectively.
 A brief caveat:  For those of you who have never made bread before, this is not a primer on how to do so – I’m just telling a story here. Get someone to teach you the basics before trying this recipe.   Now on to the yeast.

Yeast is just plain amazing!  I mean really, anything that gives you beer, wine, bread and blue cheese has to be great!  For purposes of bread baking mix the maple syrup or molasses in the ¼ cup warm water in a small bowl/cup and add the yeast.  Cover the bowl with a towel to give it privacy and the yeast will procreate like crazy – don’t get too excited there is no sex involved, just mitosis.

While the yeast is growing mix the liquid ingredients (hot water, buttermilk & butter) and sweet potato in a big bowl and mix well.  Stir in the yeast mixture. 

How much flour?

How much flour to use when making bread is often dependent on temperature, humidity, air pressure and the kind of flour you’re using.  I usually start with the amount listed in the recipe and make adjustments as I go – it’s an intuitive thing.  The whole wheat flour goes in first along with the salt and I whisk it until it’s smooth. 

It looks muddy and smells yeasty - like this:


Then I mix in white flour until the dough stiff enough to be dumped on the lightly floured counter and kneaded.  Kneading is my second favorite part of making bread – eating the finished product is my first.

Kneading is an art and a science.  You can find videos on Youtube that will demonstrate how to do it but it is the feel of the bread that is the best indicator of when you are done kneading  - it should be smooth and silky.  This particular bread is heavier and moister than bread without potato so it is a bit denser and wetter after kneading – a tad sticky.

Before kneading
During kneading
After kneading

So when all the criteria mentioned above (density, wetness, etc) have been met it’s time for the yeast to earn its keep.

The ball of dough goes into a large slightly oiled bowl, is covered by plastic and towels (remember, the yeast likes its privacy) and put in a warm place – a warm closet, near a warm stove, on the hot water heater (I warm a rice bag in the microwave, put it under the bowl and cover the whole affair with towels ((see below))).
Let the yeasties grow until the ball of dough is twice its original size – about one hour.

It’s not magic, it’s just biology.

I use this time to watch an episode of something mindless on Netflix, sync  my phone, read, take a shower, play 60 games of Bejeweld Blitz (not really)  and oil two bread pans.

When the ball of dough has doubled its size punch it down and take it out of the bowl.  Cut it into two pieces and squish the air out of them by flattening them into a rectangle (I use a marble rolling pin) - one edge should be about the length of your bread pan.   This particular dough will not flatten completely.   It’s dense and has lots of potato sugar for the yeast to feast on - the little guys just don’t want to stop growing.  I don’t worry about it.  I flatten a reasonable amount, roll the dough into a loaf shape and put it in the oiled pans.  Repeat the “put in a warm place…” process described above and let it rise until the dough is about even with the tops of the pans – 30 to 40 minutes.
Killing the Yeast.

It’s sad I know but, in order for bread to be edible, the yeast has to die.   It’s quick and, I hope, painless – I’ve never heard them scream so it must be.  They die in a pre-heated 375 degree oven.

A couple of slashes across the top of the loaves before they go into the oven it may prevent them from splitting their sides.  I have had mixed success with this and I honestly don’t care if my bread is a little lopsided so I sometimes slash and sometimes don’t.   If it makes you feel powerful slash away.

Put the bread in the oven and wait patiently……….DON’T OPEN THE OVEN DOOR FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES!!!!!  After all that work you don’t want your loaves to collapse and they might if you do.

Cookbooks say that you can tell when bread is done by tapping the bottom of the loaf and listening for a hollow sound rather than a thud.  Clearly, these directions were meant for Yo-Yo Ma or Jerry Garcia and not for those of us with tin ears and no musical talent because I am never sure what I am hearing when I tap the bottom of a loaf of bread.  So, I use my other senses and I check the smell, heft and look of the bread.  This particular bread is done in about 45 minutes.  I check it after 35 minutes and every five minutes until it looks a lovely brown, feels solid but not heavy and smells a little nutty (must be the sweet potato).   Once removed from the oven and pans I coat the tops with butter and cover the loaves with a towel to cool.

When it’s done, it looks like this!

Yes, it is a process that can take half a day and dirty a ton of dishes but the end result, at least for me, is well worth it.

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