Friday, December 30, 2016

Sheepherder Bread

My family traditionally gathers at my folks' place outside of Sonora on the day after Christmas. This year, we opted for a random potluck dinner - every person could bring whatever dish they wanted to bring (making it entirely possible that we'd only have dessert)! It worked out great - we  had barbecued turkey (the first one my niece Sara ever cooked), several potato dishes, barbecued flatiron steak, several types of salad, and my own contribution - sheepherder bread.

I've been a very infrequent baker in the past - I love homemade bread, but rarely take the time to make it myself! I found a very simple recipe on the NPR website (of all places) for bread that would have traditionally been made for Basque sheepherders - just flour, water, sugar, butter, salt and yeast. The fun thing about the recipe (at least for me) is that it recommends a 12-inch Dutch oven rather than traditional bread pans.

After finishing my sheep chores on Christmas Day, I mixed the dough and let it rise by the woodstove. After kneading it a second time and placing it in my Dutch oven (I oiled the inside and put a circle of aluminum foil in the bottom), I let it rise some more. As indicated by the recipe, I placed the covered Dutch oven inside our kitchen oven at 375. After about 12 minutes, the loaf had risen enough to push the lid up! I removed the lid and baked the bread for another 30 or 35 minutes (until the top was golden brown and the loaf sounded hollow when I thumped it). I removed it from the oven and turned the Dutch oven upside down (hoping it didn't stick). It slid right out!

On Monday evening, we sliced the 12-inch round loaf in half, revealing a beautiful white bread inside. I suspect the cast iron that surrounded the sides and bottom of the loaf helped it bake evenly. Even with 12 of us eating it, we had plenty left for sandwiches and toast the next several days. It was outstanding!

So now I'm motivated! I'm hoping to bake bread at least once a month. I'm going to experiment using 2 smaller Dutch ovens (10-inch instead of 12-inch). I'm also going to experiment with honey (instead of sugar) and with other types of flour. And someday, I want to bake this kind of bread in an outdoor oven - sounds like another project!

In the meantime, here's the recipe I used this time around: 

Prize-Winning Sheepherder Bread

During the winter months, herders would live in sheep wagons, which contained a stove and an oven. They baked their own bread in a Dutch oven, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires, with a tight-fitting lid and a bale handle.
Richard Lane/Courtesy Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno
3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salad oil
In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter is melted; let cool to about 110 degrees. Stir in yeast; cover and set in a warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Beat in about 5 cups flour to make a thick batter. Stir in about 3 1/2 cups more flour to make a stiff dough. Scrape dough onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and satiny, 10 to 20 minutes — adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air. Shape into a smooth ball. With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast iron or cast aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour. (Watch closely.) Bake, covered, with a lid in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove bread from oven and turn onto a rack to cool. You will need a helper. Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes one very large loaf.
Source: From the Sheepcamp to the Kitchen, Volume II

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