Bronze and mahogany leaves twist off their stems and flutter down to remind the grass that the season turns, and it too will turn from soft and green to a brittle brown. A brilliant autumn day in October, and I’m inside looking out from my kitchen window thinking about engaging in a bread baking extravaganza. I’m keeping a commitment, hastily promised, to bring “something baked” to a bake sale at the public library – all for a good cause.
I thumb through a bent and badly soiled cookbook, the one with the plain black cover meaning old and filled with recipes from another century. I’m searching for my great grandmother Johnson’s directions on how to make Swedish rye bread. Swedish rye bread is revered in our family and in the community because many of the settlers in Phelps County immigrated from Sweden to build a town on the plains of Nebraska. With respect and more than a little trepidation, I read the hand-written directions for this, sacred bread that my great grandmother, Anna Johnson brought from Sweden in 1867.
I do need to proceed with caution since I learned all I know about bread making from standing at my mother’s elbow watching her measure, mix, knead, and bake. I remember her devoting a day to the process, and she started the yeast, called a sponge, the night before so all was ready to begin in early morning. My hope is to start and finish within two hours and at the most three so I can get outdoors and enjoy a walk at Sandy Channel on such a calm (meaning no wind) and leaf -turning type of day.
My first concession to the reality of my skills and patience is to discard my great grandmother’s famous recipe and find one within my skill level and time slot. To my happy surprise, a contemporary recipe for rye bread flutters out of the family recipe folder. I read it and feel confident that I can execute the processes, and I begin by gathering the ingredients: rye flour, white flour, a baking potato, yeast, butter, sorghum and salt
The key ingredient, sorghum distinguishes grandmother Johnson’s rye bread recipe from most other rye bread recipes in which molasses is listed as the sweetener. Sorghum, rich and dark as a brown bear’s fur is produced from the sweet sorghum plant. Sweet sorghum is harvested for the stalks rather than the grain and is pressed to release a sap similar to maple sap that boils down to a syrup. Sorghum and molasses both taste sweet, but sorghum syrup adds a sharp, biting edge to the sweetness somewhat like biting into a honey-crisp apple. A sweet yet bright, tart flavor floods the taste buds. Sorghum does the same.
Oh, no, I see that the first step requires a process that is best done the night before the baking day! First, the recipe advises to make a sponge from a boiled potato, the potato water and the white flour. When all is cooled to the touch of a finger, add one package of yeast. Yeast quickly doubles, triples, and quadruples in its potato mash. The overnight process contributes flavor and a reliable rise to the bread.
Too late for me to consider the overnight sponge. It is 9:00 a.m., and I’m starting the sponge by cooking a potato, mashing the potato and mixing in a specified amount of potato water, the flour and salt, and then waiting for it to cool to the proper temperature before I add the yeast. I feel like I’m caught in a time warp – standing still on a bright Saturday morning, stirring and watching yeast rise.
Add the rye flour to bring a sweet and earthy note to the mix. Sticky through and through. I mix and knead by hand, fist and palm. The mixture absorbs the flour in a mysterious and rewarding way, and with one more turn and punch, feels satiny to the touch and ready for the first rise.
Twenty, thirty, then forty-five minutes pass slowly by while I watch and wait for the dough to blimp up so that a thumb print stays indented instead of springing back. The third rise happens in the bread pans which by now are buttered and prepared to plop-in the dough for baking.
What can go wrong? A number of things can happen in this process, and I have experienced every one and mainly because I leave the bread thinking I can do other things I have on my mind to accomplish while it rises. Bread baking demands attention, and bread dough won’t wait for the baker to show up.
1) Leave the rising dough too long, and the yeast blimps up the dough so high that the protein structure of the flour won’t hold up, and the loaf collapses in baking.
2) Add too much flour in the kneading process, and the dough becomes too stiff and the baked product tastes like flour
3) Rising time cut short, and the bread compacts and becomes hard in the baking
4) Baking time too short, the bread is doughy in the middle and will collapse in the pan
5) Overbake the bread, and it turns dark and dry
Nothing in the known world matches the aroma of fresh baked bread for generating feelings of comfort and satisfaction, and to add even more interest to the flavor of freshly baked bread, my neighbors Jenny and Leland made aronia berry jelly and generously shared a jar with me. Aronia berries taste tart with a deep berry flavor that is between raspberry and chokecherry and indescribably delicious. An aronia berry jelly lightly spread on Swedish rye promises a combination of lively flavors, and I invite you to join me in experiencing true contentment. See the rye bread recipe below:
Swedish Rye Bread
1 cup potato water (water from boiled potato) 2 cups rye flour
1 package yeast 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 potato (boiled and mashed) 1 Tablespoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
Mix and leave to rise until double in size.
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed 1/2 cup sorghum
1/4 cup butter
Cool and put into the bread mixture. Work this well with 5-6 cups all-purpose flour to make a dough that doesn’t stick to the board. Form into 2 or 3 medium-size loaves and let rise until double. Bake at 375 Degrees F for 1 hour.