Author: Judith Fertig
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2001)
Bread is the body and soul of every civilization. Empires have been built on the backs of flour, whether as simple unleavened rounds in neolithic times, oval Indian naan, tangy Ethiopian injera or leavened wheat loaves in ancient Greece. Growing and milling grains helped to organize, grow and industrialize societies, and by the Middle Ages the type of bread eaten was also the indicator of socioeconomic class. With automated machinery to mix, knead, bake, slice and package identical loaves to ship to the masses came the increased use of bread improvers, preservatives and other ingredients. While this improved shelf life, baking efficiency and ensured softness from baking to final slice, the tastes and textures of a homemade loaf were lost. Today, much storebought bread is spongy and flavourless, and even “artisanal” loaves are often simply shadows of what they began as. Thanks to dedicated bakers and recipe authors, a homemade bread Renaissance is beginning in kitchens around the world. Judith Fertig is one of the forerunners in the campaign to regain traditional food values in America, adding to the home baking collection with 2001’s work Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket.
Prairie Home Breads is not simply another bread manual or manifesto on home cooking. Nor is it a diatribe against buying staples like sandwich bread from the store – instead, Fertig lures in readers with charming forewords and stories, useful tips and master techniques and easy to understand, thorough recipes. The introduction to the book is a combination of memoir, history textbook and encyclopedia. In the latter section readers will find methods for each step of hand making bread, from proofing and kneading to punching down, shaping and ultimately baking. Even for the more experienced bread bakers, it’s a great refresher and information source, especially with regards to the functions of each ingredient in a formula and the specifics of perfect rising, baking and storage.
Seven sections divide the offerings in Prairie Home Breads into Yeasted, Naturally Leavened & Slow Rising, Whole Grain, Rolls & Buns, Quickbreads, Muffins & Popovers, Scones, Biscuits, Crackers & Soda Bread, and Coffee Cakes & Pastries. While this is definitely a book about bread, Fertig peppers the recipe pages with quotations, history bites, ideas for using the finished product and guides for flour “types” (p. 89), sourdough starters (p. 51, 58, 64), shaping rolls and even how to have fun with an enriched celebratory dough recipe (p.138). Every recipe is prefaced with a charming note as to where the recipe came from or the memories it evoked from a contributor. Along with the breads in this book, Fertig also includes recipes for fillings, condiments, recipes using bread and “serve along” sides like Warm Goat Cheese with Fresh Basil, Balsamic Vinegar, and Wildflower Honey (p. 62). A recent favourite at a family barbecue was the Summer Garden Moulded Bread Salad with Garlic and Lemon Vinaigrette (p. 4), although I must admit we purchased, rather than made, a crusty multigrain Italian loaf and used the red currant tomatoes we had on hand rather than yellow pear tomatoes. Like any recipe created from years of experience in the kitchen, the salad didn’t disappoint – similar in flavour to a muffuletta sandwich with the texture of a marbled pate, it was a nice change to the typical panzanella you might find at an Italian gathering.
Those looking to craft their own rustic home loaves are spoiled for choice by Prairie Home Breads. Goods range from the simple Shaker Daily Bread (p. 3) to the more complex Prairie Pioneer Two-Day Bread (p. 59) and the exotic Minnesota Wild Rice Bread (p. 105). For my mom, who loves her bread sweet and fruity (and “filled with bits” as she puts it), I had no trouble picking out Fertig’s recipe for Spicy Pear Bread (p. 29) to make. A Swiss concoction Fertig found at a tiny cafe in southern Wisconsin, it is one of those items that have as much local stories and history kneaded into it as flour. Filled with chunks of fresh and dried pears (soaked in pear nectar), the eggless bread is moist and tender with a slightly chewy crust. To cater to my pantry’s contents (and my mother’s tastes), I made three changes to the original: using ground cardamom for the anise, 100% whole wheat bread flour in place of the all purpose, and instant yeast instead of the active dry. The end result was nothing short of delightful to eat, especially when spread with the Farmer’s Almanac Pear Butter I had left over. A plainer, two-loaf recipe that also garnered high praise from the toast and sandwich crowd was the simple Cracked Wheat Bread (p. 90). Still somewhat sweet, it lent itself well to my whole wheat bread flour use and one loaf even played host to some of the “bits” my mom so loves (in her batch I used Thompson raisins, pepitas and sunflower seeds). The dough for this recipe is somewhat stiffer than the almost “wet” Spicy Pear Bread, and Fertig recommends a heavy duty mixer for good reason – it almost burnt my old Hamilton Beach model out. The only problem I found with the Cracked Wheat Bread recipe was that it called for two inclusions of butter in the ingredients list but only used one dose in the method. I simply omitted the second amount from my batches and judging from the rate it disappeared from the kitchen the loaves didn’t suffer as a result.
Prairie Home Breads really is about bringing back memories of home and family through food and stories. It is so varied in its worldwide offerings that readers will never find themselves without a slice to enjoy or a coffee cake to bring to a Sunday brunch, and is detailed enough that even the fanciest or most complex recipes are approachable and conquerable. From beginner to expert, grandmothers to great grandsons, everyone will find something in Judith Fertig’s Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket to enjoy and share.
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