Monday, after my French bread came out of the oven, I called my brother Dave, who is a professional baker, to ask him a question. The recipe I had used (and most of the recipes for French bread that I perused) was different from most bread recipes. After the bread had been kneaded, instead of putting it in a bowl and allowing it to rise to double its size, the recipe had you leave the bread to rest for 10 minutes under a damp cloth, and then punch it down. You did this a total of five times. Why do it this way, I asked him.
He agreed that it is an unusual style, but said doing it that way really got the gluten going, making the bread yeasty and with a larger crumb than a regular white or wheat bread. Interesting, and good to know.
My brother went on to talk a bit about our father’s bread when he owned Gloor’s Bakery in Columbus. Dad’s bread was renowned, or at least as renowned as anything can be in Columbus, Nebraska. He sold so much of his white bread that it was hard to keep up. On weekends, the farmers would come into town, and Gloor’s Bakery was one of their stops. They bought enough bread to freeze and last a few weeks.
The bread was sliced in an electric slicing machine. Its blades went up and down, and the loaves of bread were placed on the slide. We would push the loaves of bread down through the slicers. When it got to the final loaf, we would use one of the other loaves to push it through. “Never use your hands,” my mother firmly instructed us. She had a way of instilling the fear of God.
My brother told me a few things that I didn’t know. Every night, Dad would go down to the bakery and “set sponge.” The so-called sponge consisted of flour, salt, water, and yeast. It was mixed and dumped into a large trough to rise overnight. “The trough seemed huge to me,” said Dave, who was only 11 or 12 when my family sold the bakery and moved to Colorado. “I would love to see it now. I’ll bet it isn’t nearly as large as I imagine.”
The next morning, Dad would arrive early at the bakery. One of the first things he would do would be to punch down the dough. Bread makers know that deflating the dough — or “punching it down” — is a step in all bread making. Imagine punching down a dough that size. Then, according to Dave, throughout the day as Dad made his various kinds of bread — white, cottage, vienna, buns, etc. — he would take some of that dough and put it in with the other bread ingredients. “Like a starter dough for sourdough?” I asked Dave. “Yep, except it wasn’t sour,” he answered.
Dave also told me that when Dad and Mom bought the bakery in Leadville, Dad tried like the dickens to recreate that sponge dough. To this day, Dave doesn’t understand why he was unsuccessful, but try as he might, Dad wasn’t able to make sponge dough. Probably something to do with the altitude.
I’m always amused at myself when I make bread. To get the water temperature just so, I heat it up, take the temperature, cool it down if necessary, take the temperature, heat it more if necessary. It takes time for me to get the temperature JUST RIGHT for the yeast. I am pretty darn sure that Dad knew the temperature without ever touching a thermometer, just as he could measure out enough dough for hamburger buns without weighing.
“You know what?” my brother asked me. “I would give anything to go back in time and be able to watch Dad bake again.”…..
So would I.