This story starts with a recipe for sourdough. A recipe that my husband found somewhere on the Internets, one that didn’t call for fancy sourdough starters ordered from Amazon or for making a mother – a process that seems to take a long time, involving making a sponge and keeping it like a pet in the fridge, feeding it daily doses of flour to keep it alive, tending to it delicately for days (weeks?) until it’s ready to make bread.

And James insisted that we had to make it. See, he’s from California, the land of bountiful sourdough, and we used to be able to pick up a loaf of good sourdough whenever we wanted. But now that we’re in Massachusetts, the fountain of sourdough has pretty much dried up – until he found the recipe. This simple, two-day long recipe that would yield two loaves – we could have sourdough whenever we wanted!

And since this was James’ project, he was in charge. He created the sponge and let it rise on top of the fridge (a consistently warm spot in the kitchen), he did the sticky kneading, the forming the dough into loaves and giving them an egg wash, everything. I mostly helped by taking pictures.

And the bread turned out beautifully.

And we were both quite proud!

Unfortunately, they did not taste as pretty as they looked. They had a dense, even crumb (a result, we discovered after some quick Google research, of punching down the dough after the first rise. If you want your bread to be airy and rustic, don’t punch it down!) and a bland flavor. It was boring, boring bread. That is, until after we swallowed our sample pieces – and then we realized it had what can only be described as a mildly offensive aftertaste.

…I don’t want to talk about it.

Yes I do. It was bad. Pretty, pretty bad.

And so, after being up to midnight on a Tuesday (!!) to bake this bread, we ended up tossing it all in the garbage.

And we started over. No, not with the sourdough recipe. That went into the trash with the weird-tasting bread that it spawned. No, we started over with a recipe I could trust, from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. (That book is bomber, by the way.) Anyway, we went with a straightforward recipe for a sandwich bread that we could make in one day. And I was fairly certain that the bread would be great, because those folks at America’s Test Kitchen really know what they’re doing.

You know what? I was right – it’s delicious! It’s hearty with a great nutty, very slightly sweet flavor, and the oats on top and the sunflower seeds inside definitely keep things interesting. This is not a cardboard-tasting wheat bread, that’s for sure. And yes, this has a tight crumb, but that’s what we want in a sandwich bread, also it’s tender, not dense like the sourdough flop.

The recipe is nice because it uses a handy shortcut for getting those 7 grains into the dough – instead of adding each grain type individually (and therefore having to buy seven bags of grain for less than a quart cup of each), you just need one bag of Bob’s Red Mill Seven Grain Cereal. First you soften up the grains by steeping them in boiling water for half an hour, until they turn into a nice 110-degree porridge. (The Family Baking Book taught me that anything over 110 degrees will start to kill the yeast.)

The dough is very sticky, so you will need a stand mixer to put it together.

Once the mixer has mixed it all together, you knead it a little bit and form it into a ball.

Place the ball into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise.

Then you shape the dough into a square and roll it up.

Pinch the seam together, then place the dough seam-side down in the greased pan, and let it rise again.

Then you sprinkle the bread with oats! I really liked this touch, but despite the fact that you slick up the bread with some melted butter first, the oats didn’t really stick to the loaf. A lot of them fell off when I turned the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool, and more fell off when I put it in a plastic bag later. I’ll try pressing the oats gently into the surface next time, but I don’t know how much of a difference that will make.

See? Oats everywhere. But mm, what a pretty loaf.

And this is good bread. And photogenic!

And my husband was very proud! So there’s a happy ending to this story, and it’s this:

The FABulous tuna sandwiches we had for lunch the next day! Yum yum yum.

Multigrain Bread

From America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

Makes 1 9-inch loaf (or one 10-inch loaf, I’ve discovered)

1 cup (5 ounces) 7 grain hot cereal mix (ATK recommends Bob’s Red Mill)

2 cups boiling water (boil first, then measure)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus extra for brushing

3 tablespoons honey

2 1/2 – 3 cups (12 1/2 – 15 ounces) all purpose flour

1 cup (5 1/2 ounces) whole wheat flour

1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant rapid-rise yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup unsalted pumpkin or sunflower seeds

1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking oats

1. Stir the cereal mix and boiling water together in a medium bowl and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the mixture resembles a thick porridge and is just warm (about 110 degrees), about 30 minutes. Stir in the melted butter and honey.

2. Combine 2 1/2 cups of the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, yeast, and salt in a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the cereal mixture and mix until the dough comes together, about 2 minutes.

3. Increase the mixer speed to medium-low and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, adding the seeds during the final minute of mixing. If after 4 minutes more flour is needed, add the remaining 1/2 cup flour, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl but sticks to the bottom.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball. Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

5. Grease a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan (I used a 10 by five-inch pan). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and gently press it into a 9 (or 10)-inch square. Roll the dough into a tight cylinder and pinch the seam closed. Place the loaf, seam side down, in the prepared pan. Mist the loaf with vegetable oil spray, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle, 45 to 75 minutes.

6. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the loaf lightly with melted butter, sprinkle with the oats, then spray lightly with water. (Most of the oats fell off after baking, maybe press them lightly into the top?) Bake until golden and the center of the bread registers 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 50 minutes, rotating the loaf halfway through baking (mine took closer to 50 minutes). Cool the loaf in the pan for 15 minutes, then flip out onto a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.

To Make Ahead:

In step 4, do not let the dough rise, but refrigerate it overnight or up to 16 hours; let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then continue with step 5. (I’m interested to try this method next time!)

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