It’s baking day! Which really means it’s: work on my book while using baking as therapy to avoid losing my mind day! This week, therapy comes in the form of Maple Oat Bread.
Oatmeal breads are among my favorite to bake. I find that oats impart a nutty sweetness and give bread a tender crumb more readily than just-plain-flour. If you are a kneading novice, as I am, a tender crumb can be rather elusive. I have a couple of oatmeal breads in my repertoire, but this Maple Oat Bread is currently a favorite around my house.
It began life as a recipe for Vermont Oatmeal Maple-Honey Bread in the Kind Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion (Countryman Press, 2012). It’s an excellent, award-winning cookbook; but then, everything the folks at King Arthur do tends to be excellent and award-worthy. If you don’t live near enough to make a pilgrimage to King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont, you can snag a copy of the book here: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/king-arthur-flour-bakers-companion-cookbook.
I’ve made various adjustments to the original recipe to suit my tastes and ingredients. The final bread is soft, but not too soft. With oats, maple syrup, cinnamon, and brown sugar, it might seem like it will come out overly sweet. It does not. I find that it’s just the right balance. Although, with this list of ingredients, it practically screams out “breakfast!” and it really makes excellent toast. But it is equally excellent sandwich bread, or even a casual dinner bread. Versatility is high on my list of bread priorities.
This recipe makes two loaves, and it is a great gifting bread. Assuming you can get it out of the house. But the treats you’re most likely to gobble up yourself usually make the most welcome gifts. One of the loaves I made today is headed over to the neighbors’ house as a thank you for watering our garden while we were away.
If you aren’t gifting the bread and can’t eat up both loaves immediately, don’t worry, it keeps very well in a lightly covered container or under an inverted bowl on the counter (you never store bread in the fridge, right? It’s the fast-track to stale-ville). Assuming it doesn’t get eaten up in the first couple of days–which might be a lot to assume–it also makes divine french toast.
MAPLE OAT BREAD
2 1/2 c. boiling water (yes, boiling, read on and you’ll see why it won’t kill the yeast)
1 c. rolled oats (not instant or quick oats)
1/3 c. brown sugar
2 tbsp. Vermont maple syrup (the real stuff, please–if you haven’t got any or if you’re tempted to use pancake syrup, just use honey instead.)
4 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. dry active yeast
2 c. whole wheat flour
3 – 3 1/2 c. bread flour (or unbleached AP flour)
First, I assembled my ingredients. This is important in bread baking. Timing is paramount, and I really appreciate having everything I need at hand. I use King Arthur Flour, and I have a little jar of fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon also from King Arthur. I buy yeast in bulk and I store it in the fridge. The maple syrup is Vermont Grade A medium. I don’t suggest using anything lighter than that for baking. I might go as dark as Grade B, but Grade A medium is well-suited for all syrup applications: baking, cooking, marinading, drizzling, dunking.
If you want to make this bread and you don’t have maple syrup–why don’t you have maple syrup??–or if you might consider using pancake syrup (you know, the brown viscous sludge that tastes nothing like anything found in nature), then just use honey here instead and call your bread Honey Oat Bread. Then promptly chuck the pancake syrup and swear never to buy that junk ever again.
Also, I poured myself a cup of tea. It’s very important. Bread baking isn’t proper therapy without it.
Now, to business: I combined the oats, brown sugar, maple syrup, butter, salt, and cinnamon in the bowl of a stand mixer. Bread baking can be done by hand, but I have neither the fortitude nor the desire. My mixer, my friend.
Notice that I did not add the yeast here. If you’re accustomed to mixing yeast with warm water as bread baking step 1, make sure to actively remind yourself not to add the yeast here. When the boiling water hits this mixture it will literally kill the little yeast buggers, and you need them alive. I’ve made this mistake. There are few things more frustrating than carefully kneading bread only to realize you’ve murdered the little yeasties and the bread won’t rise.
I poured the boiling water into the bowl and stirred the mixture together. I tried to resist eating it while letting it cool down.
Once the mixture was lukewarm, the oats had softened, and the butter had melted, I added the yeast. Remember that yeast needs warm water in which to wake up and become active, but hot water will kill them. It’s a fine line. If the liquid feels warm to the touch, but not too hot, you’re in business.
I sprinkled the yeast evenly over the surface of the oatmeal mixture, then added the whole wheat flour and stirred it in by hand. This just got things combined a little before the mixer got to work.
I added 3 cups of the bread flour, and then let my mixer go to work. With a dough hook attachment, I set the mixer to its lowest speed and allowed the hook to gradually work the flour into the dough.
Eventually, it started to come together. I needed about 1/4 cup of the additional 1/2 cup of flour, but this varies. Some days I use it all.
Oatmeal breads can be a little tougher to knead and can take a little longer to absorb the flour. I had to be patient and let the moisture in the oats work into the flour. The whole mixer-kneading process took around 10 minutes, but this varies. Sometimes there is still way too much flour hanging around and the ball will not come together, so I add more liquid. Sometimes it’s all just a goopy mess, and I add more flour. But it’s important to have a light touch so that the more-flour-more-water game doesn’t spiral out of control.
Finally the dough looked right. Should you try this recipe, once the dough comes together into a clean ball, do a little happy dance. If I’ve learned anything in my (mis)adventures with bread baking, it is that this moment is not a foregone conclusion.
While celebrating, I let the mixer knead the dough for about 5 minutes. I drank my tea, tidied up my kitchen, etc. But I didn’t go too far away. The road to heavy loaves is paved with over-kneaded dough. How do you know when enough is enough? Experience. I look for the dough to lighten in color and become a bit more springy.
Just before I would consider the dough fully kneaded, I shut down the mixer and dumped the whole mass out onto the counter to finish the kneading by hand. I love using my mixer to knead dough, but the last bit really is best done by hand. It’s the only way to get the dough to come together smoothly, and I really must feel it to know when this has happened.
I lightly floured my work surface–and I mean lightly, extra flour makes heavy loaves. I let the mixer do the really messy work when the bread was wet and sticky, so at this point it was pleasant and easy to handle.
When I was done kneading, the dough had become a springy, smooth ball slightly lighter in color than when I started.
To test for springiness, I poked a finger into the ball. The dough offered a nice plump resistance, and the hole filled in immediately. Perfect.
I popped the bread into a doubling bucket. That’s seriously what it’s called. Guess where I got it? King Arthur Flour.
Most recipes tell you that the dough should “double” in bulk during the first rise. It may or may not fully double, but I let it rise in a draft-free place for about an hour. I covered it with a tea towel instead of the bucket lid (no airtight seal here–the yeast needs to breathe).
I checked it after an hour, but it wasn’t ready yet. It was still too springy. I continued to check every five minutes. It took a total of one hour and twenty minutes to finish rising, but on a humid day in July it could be done in under an hour. As you see, it certainly doubled in bulk. But the real test is the “poke test.”
When you poke your finger into the bread, the hole should remain without filling in. It might fill in very slowly, and this is okay, but you don’t want it to be springy at all. If it is, give it longer to rise. If it sighs or collapses when poked, you’ve let it go too far. Lesson learned. The bread might be okay, but the flavor will be a little off. However, yeast are pretty forgiving little creatures. Unless you pour boiling water on them.
I squished the dough in the bucket to release some of the air. I then dumped it out onto the counter. I flattened it and divided it in half. I love a bench scraper for this job. And see how my hand print stayed in the dough? That’s a good illustration of the poke test. This dough is well risen.
I shaped the two halves into smooth rounds and let them rest for a moment or two to give the yeast a chance to reinvigorate. I greased the bread pans while I waited, then shaped each ball into a loaf and plopped it into the bread pan.
I then let it rise again, lightly covered as before.
I was looking for the dough to crown above the pan, which took, again, an hour and twenty minutes. This is not a coincidence. Each rise should take about the same amount of time in this recipe.
While proofing, preheat your oven to 350-degrees.
Before baking, I slashed the tops of the loaves. This gives the loaves a nice appearance when finished, but it also gives them more room to expand in the oven. It’s called “oven spring” and it’s a very good thing.
I baked the loaves at 350-degrees for about 40 minutes. That’s how long it took for the center to read 190-degrees on an instant-read thermometer. It’s the best way to know the bread is done.
I popped the loaves out of the pans and let them cool on a cooling rack. If they cool in the pans, condensation will make them soggy. Soggy begets moldy. Yuck.
While my whole house smelled absolutely amazing, and the idea of eating a warm slice of fresh bread offered great temptation, I let it cool pretty thoroughly before diving in. Slice it too early and the steam will escape, making the bread dry. That is, if one could even manage to cut a fluffy hot loaf without smooshing it.