Saturday, April 21, 2012

Grandma's Homemade White Bread: Beli Kruh

My grandmother was famous for her homemade bread.  And not just in her own family, as it turns out.

One of my mother's recent recollections is this one:  My grandmother used to bake bread and distribute the loaves to people in their Slovenian neighborhood in Cleveland.  As a little girl, my mother used to accompany her mother, when she made the rounds.

"She just gave it away?" This puzzled me, because  I knew the family didn't have much money, especially during the Depression.

Yes, my mother assured me.  My grandmother was an open-hearted woman who believed in sharing what she had.  Oh, one more thing.  Somewhere along the line, she got some training as a hairdresser.  So she also used to give free haircuts.

These stories do fit with my own memories of my grandmother's generous spirit.  Still,  I can't help but wonder if there might have been some bartering going on, or if she had a little business on the side.

Grandma's Homemade Bread, as we always called it, was a high point of our regular Sunday afternoon gatherings at the little bungalow she shared with Grandpa.  They co-existed unhappily, my mother eventually revealed.  He was a gruff, unhappy man, who was sometimes violent.  She remained sweet and loving.  Maybe baking was her escape.

My grandmother's bread was made with white flour and baked in standard rectangular bread pans.  She served it still warm from the oven, thickly sliced.  It was brown and crusty on the outside, tender and melting inside.  We slathered it with butter or used it to make ham sandwiches.  Grandma always had multiple loaves ready, enough to feed her four children, their spouses, and the dozen grandchildren who might show up.

It is hard to pinpoint what made Grandma's bread so memorable.  It was moister and sturdier, maybe even coarser, than standard white bread, if my memory is accurate.   She never used recipes.  My mother recently mentioned that she often used potato water.  Perhaps that was the secret.

I wondered if one of my vintage cookbooks might hold the key.  They all had multiple recipes for bread.  "Kruh," in Slovenian.

One recipe in Treasured Slovenian & International Recipes caught my eye.


Beautiful Bread?  That seemed like a good place to start.

Then I remembered.  Beli just means white.  Plain old white bread.

I looked over the recipe.  The ingredients were standard.  White flour and yeast, with a little egg, sugar and shortening.  But the process was complex.  An initial sponge, and then three more risings.  So maybe those Progressive Slovene Women were onto something.  Definitely a recipe to try on a  cooking day when I had plenty of time.

The day came on Week 9, when I decided to make cevapcici.  It was one of those rare Tuesdays when I had nothing scheduled and could devote the whole day to my cooking experiments.

I  did wonder whether a conventional loaf of white bread would be the best choice for this particular dinner.  Cevapcici are traditionally served with flatbread: pita, or a slightly thicker and larger Serbian variant called lepinje.  But I figured the same dough might work for both.

So it was settled.  I would follow the Progressive Slovene Women's recipe for Beli Kruh, which yields 2 loaves.  Or, in this case, one extra-large loaf of the standard variety and one smaller flatbread.

1 package yeast
1 c. lukewarm water
1 c. sifted white flour (I used bread flour)
1 egg, beaten
2 T. sugar

5-6 c. additional white flour, sifted  (I needed just 4 3/4 c.)
1 T. melted butter (original called for lard)
1 c. lukewarm water
2 t. salt

Mix the first five ingredients to make a sponge.  Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size.  Add remaining ingredients, adding up to 6 c. additional flour to make a firm dough. Mix well and knead until smooth.  Put dough in an oiled bowl and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size.  Punch down and let rise for a second time until doubled.  Form into 2 loaves and put in greased bread pans.  Or make one smaller flatbread, about 1/2 inch thick, and place on a baking sheet.  Let loaves rise for the third time.  Bake at 325 degrees for one hour for a standard loaf,  less time for flatbread. Brush with melted butter during baking.  Let cool before eating, if you can resist.

The verdict: Mixed.  Of course, I was measuring my results against a fantasy, so I may not be the best judge.

The yeast was definitely active.  The bread rose, maybe even a little too much.  The texture seemed uneven, with holes here and there.  The flavor was fine.

A confession:   My bread making skills have become a little rusty.  I used to bake bread more often, until I discovered a problem:  If you bake your own,  you eat more than you should.

So I made some mistakes.

The biggest one: we store our flour in the freezer.  It needed more time to reach room temperature.  I compounded the problem by adding too much flour all at once.  I suspected right away that I had overdone it, since I had some difficulty kneading it in.   Even though I ended up using considerably less than the six cups of flour the recipe calls for, it still may have been too much.  Lesson learned.

We had the flatbread with the cevapcici.  It was probably a little too thick, or perhaps the dough rose too much.  No pocket, either.

If you are serious about making flatbread, find a recipe for Bosnian or Serbian lepinje, like this one. The foundation seems to be a plainer yeast dough, without egg or sugar.  A flat round loaf, about 1/2 inch thick, is allowed to rise briefly and then baked at a higher initial temperature, so the bread will form a pocket.

That big, standard loaf of white bread lasted a long time.  I used a few slices the following week, when I made struklji, a boiled rolled dumpling with a bread-and-egg filling.  My husband made bread pudding and croutons. Even though we kept it in the refrigerator, the last bit of the loaf got moldy and had to be discarded.

Maybe my grandmother really had figured out the secret of successful bread making.

Bread is meant to be shared.  You need a big extended family or a whole neighborhood to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

I'll remember that next time.  And maybe I'll add a little potato water.

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