Once my parents were finally settled into assisted living and we knew for certain they were never going back to their house again, last fall my elder brother and his wife began the daunting task of decluttering it. Thirty years is a long time for two children of The Great Depression to be saving everything and letting it all accumulate in a relatively small house.
The kitchen/breakfast room, after Dad's study, was possibly the biggest challenge. There were six sets of dishes (my obsession with tableware came honestly), a collection of Revereware and Corningware that would supply at least three households, enough saved twist-ties to fill a 10-gallon garbage bag, enough plastic fruit containers to fill twice that many, and stacks of mail, old newspapers, and magazines (my Dad's contribution) to fill at least three lawn-and-leaf bags.
And in all that, not a single decent knife—but I digress.
When asked whether I might want any of the tableware/cookware, my immediate and emphatic answer was "Lord, no!" My own kitchen (minus the twist ties and fruit containers but adding in four times as many decent knives as any one cook should own in a lifetime) is probably worse than Mama's. Okay, definitely worse.
But after resurrecting my mother's buttermilk yeast rolls for Thanksgiving dinner last year, I began thinking of the small, neat seven-inch loaves she made with that same dough. They were just right for two people and ideal for sharing, as she so often did, with a bereaved, sick, or shut-in neighbor. It was just four little pans that nested. Surely there was room for those.
My sister-in-law found and saved the pans for me, and the last time we visited, I brought them home. A little battered from frequent use, their outer surface had been greased and browned so that the bread would have a richly-browned, crisp crust. They tell the story of a master baker who has used them well. By contrast, their inner surfaces are meticulously scrubbed to a bright satin sheen, telling of a woman who was equally as obsessed with sanitation.
And now when I use them, I can feel my mother close at hand.
Mama's Buttermilk Bread
Over the last few months, I've been trying to perfect this dough and get my hand back with yeast bread in general. The basic formula didn't need a thing, but the method is more straightforward and, I think, is producing bread that is better—that is, more like my mother's.
Makes 4 small (7-inch) loaves, 3 9-inch loaves, or about 3 dozen rolls
½ teaspoon active dry yeast or 1-ounce cake compressed fresh yeast
½ cup lukewarm water (don't use hot tap water)
2 pounds (about 7 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk (not low-fat) buttermilk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1. Dissolve the yeast in the water and let it proof for 10 minutes. It should evenly cloud the water and may start to bubble a bit as it sits.
2. Meanwhile, set aside 1 cup of the flour and put the remainder in a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, soda, and salt and whisk to mix them together. Heat the buttermilk and butter or oil until it's just warm enough to melt the butter (if using), stirring until it's completely melted and blended with the liquid. Let it cool slightly (to less than 110° F.).
3. Stir the water and yeast into the buttermilk, then make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the liquids. Work it into a soft, cohesive dough. Lightly sprinkle a work surface with some of the reserved flour and turn the dough out onto it. Knead for about 8 minutes, adding the reserved flour as needed (you may not use all of it, especially if you've used the cup measure rather than a scale). The dough should be elastic and smooth and spring back when you press into it with a finger.
4. Clean the mixing bowl, rub it with oil, and return the dough to it. Cover it with a damp, double-folded towel or plastic wrap, and set it to rise in a warm, draft free spot until doubled in bulk, about 4 hours, or if you want to let it rise overnight, in a cool but not chilly spot.
5. Punch the dough down and lightly knead for about 1 minute. To make rolls, skip to step 6. To make loaves, lightly grease four small (7½-by-2¼ inch) or 3 9-inch loaf pans with butter or olive oil. Divide the dough into 4 (or 3) equal parts, shape each into an oblong loaf, and put them in the prepared pans. Cover with a damp towel and set them in a warm spot until they're doubled and clearing the tops of the pans, about 1-to-1½-hours, depending on the ambient temperature. Skip to step 7.
6. To make rolls, you can cut or shape the dough just about any way you like. Mama always rolled it out and cut it with a round 2½-inch biscuit cutter, then baked them on a lightly greased rimmed baking sheet, sometimes touching, sometimes not. Occasionally, she would fold each round in half to make pocketbook rolls. I just grease my hands and pinch off lumps of dough a little over an inch in diameter, roll them into a ball, and lay them on the prepared pan or greased round cake pans, slightly touching. Regardless of shape, cover them with a damp towel and set them in a warm place until doubled, about 1-to-1½ hours depending on the ambient temperature.
7. When ready to bake, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. for the loaves, 400° for rolls (see step 8). For the loaves, uncover the pans and put them in the center of the oven. Bake at 375° for 20 minutes, then increase the temperature to 400° F. and continue baking until they are nicely-browned and hollow-sounding when tapped, about 15 minutes longer for the smaller loaves, 20-25 for the larger ones. Turn the bread out of the pans onto wire cooling racks and let it cool ten minutes before cutting into it, or fully cool them if you're making it ahead or, as Mama often did, to wrap and give away.
8. For the rolls, uncover and put the pan in the center of the 400° oven. Bake until they're risen and nicely browned, about 12-15 minutes. Remove them from the oven and flip them over bottom up and let them cool for a couple of minutes on the pan or a cooling rack, then transfer to a napkin-lined bread basket, lightly cover, and serve hot.