Monday, October 18, 2010


It's officially autumn in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. My 52nd autumn, to be exact, and except for one year lived in another hemisphere, all my experiences are recorded within their blue-green frame. Weddings, births, funerals, wars, a bit of travel here and there, all carrying that familiar essence -- the seasoning of love and loss, of lack and abundance, in equal measure. But always in the background, holding things together even when life fell apart, were those great blue hills. Tirelessly keeping watch as we planted our gardens and canned our harvest, cut Christmas trees and boiled apple butter, sometimes with a big old harvest moon for company. This week, they are poised to burst into every shade of flaming red and gold because the nights are cooler and the days shorter, and so, naturally, my thoughts turn to the kitchen.

Of Scots and German blood, it seems my family has always known how to live off the land and settling in Appalachia back in the 1800s must have felt just right. I have cousins who still farm part of the original land grant and my Grandpa Bell was said to have made moonshine so fine, there was no need of a chaser. Mostly I remember that he kept a bag of Circus Peanuts in a metal breadbox on the kitchen counter and while he still lived, I was just tall enough to reach unseeing into that bag I secretly knew he wanted me to find.

I cannot claim his reputed skills, but having spent some years as a baker and a stint as a personal chef, and being the descendant of such folks, I have found my niche, albeit in a different branch of fermenting. I recently had the pleasure of attending a family reunion, visiting with my mother's remaining two sisters (she's the baby) and their various offspring. My contribution was these hearty whole-grain dinner rolls, tweaked from an ancient recipe by the addition of wheat berries and 7-grain cereal. Let me know what you think.

2-1/2 C bread flour (we're aiming for a total of roughly 6 to 6-1/2 cups flour/grains)
2-1/2 C wheat flour
1 C 7-grain cereal
1/2 C wheat berries (if you're not enamored of boiling "wheat kernels" or simply like a smoother dough, omit and substitute cereal/flour, again depending on desired consistency)
1/4 C vegetable oil
1/3 C honey
1 T salt
4 t yeast
Roughly 2 C warm water

Combine all ingredients (hopefully in your powerful Kitchenaid stand mixer if you're like me and the novelty of hand-kneading has worn off) and when well integrated, knead 7 minutes minimum, adjusting just a bit on the hydration, if necessary, until you get a smooth dough. You know the drill - place in a greased bowl, flip so the whole thing is oiled, cover and go find something else to do for up to 2 hours, or until it's doubled (unless it's summertime, I leave mine in the oven with the light on, and ditto once they're shaped, until you're ready to preheat). I also have some very inexpensive plastic bowls with lids that I routinely use for bread-rising - saves on plastic wrap and dish towels - though sourdough will blow off the top and scare the cat/dog.

When ready, fold the dough onto your floured counter top. At this point, you can simply divide in half, roll up and place in 2 greased loaf pans. If you want the dinner rolls, however, the easiest way to divide is into 2 halves. Then split each half, by turn, again. Roll these lumps gently/loosely into a rope and cut into 6 fairly even pieces (for a total of 2 dozen rolls). Alternatively, you can weigh the dough and divide/weigh accordingly. Use whatever technique you like to make them round and don't worry - they'll rise together and become pretty uniform on their own. I like the tucking-under method that just stretches the top of each piece smooth. Some like to roll them, Miyagi-style, using the counter top for friction, or make a "mushroom" by squeezing between thumb and forefinger. Place side-by-side on a greased baking sheet - mine is about 11 x 15 - and let rise until the sides are just about touching. Time varies but allowing an hour should do the job. For prettiness, just before baking you can egg-wash them and sprinkle some of the 7-grain on top. Preheat oven to 350 and when risen, bake 20 to 25 minutes or until brown on top.