IF YOU WORKED at Sacchetti’s Bakery, in Ardmore, you learned two things.
You learned to duck when Rearo, the hotheaded Italian who owned the business with his brother Tony, headed your way. That S.O.B. had a handshake like a bench vise and a fist like a ball-peen hammer. If he was happy, he’d squeeze your knuckles into mangled pulp; if he was pissed, he’d plant a hard one to your bicep.
And you learned it was hard work to bake bread.
There were 100-pound sacks of flour to be hoisted into a massive mixer, and heavy metal racks to be rolled into a proofing box where the temperature was a constant 100 degrees and the humidity registered 100 percent.
With a huge oven pumping out heat, the place wouldn’t cool down till midnight. Before you went home, you needed an air hose to spray off the mix of flour, cornmeal and sweat that had crusted your arms and legs.
It was utterly miserable, monotonous work, filling wooden sheets with rounds of dough, 1,000 dozen in a shift, for a buck sixty-five an hour.
Forty years have come and gone since then. Rearo is dead, Sacchetti’s is long gone.
But I still make bread.
No, I’m not a glutton for punishment. It turns out, it’s really not that hard when you make only one or two loaves at a time. I’ve got a recipe that takes fewer than 5 minutes to mix before popping it into the oven for an hour. Because it uses baking powder as a leavening agent, you don’t even have to wait for the dough to rise.
The secret to this recipe is one simple ingredient: beer.
I didn’t invent this recipe. I took it from Mark Bittman, of the New York Times, a wonderful food (and opinion) writer known for his “minimalist” recipes.
“Minimalist” does not mean ordinary. This bread is as good as those $6 loaves they sell at Reading Terminal Market. It’ll cost you less than a buck, plus the cost of your beer.
Bittman suggests using a Doppelbock or an English brown ale. But you can use anything you like, or even a beer you don’t like. Those overly spiced Christmas ales taking up room in the back of your fridge are an excellent bread-making ingredient.
Dark beer will turn the bread a bit darker. A Belgian golden ale imparts a mild, fruity flavor. Hoppy beer gives it a slightly bitter taste that complements a dollop of jam.
Double or triple the recipe below, and either freeze the extra loaves or give them away. Serve with soft butter or good olive oil. And don’t forget to crack open a bottle of lager.
You’ll find that baking your own bread is a lot like brewing your own beer, and not just because they share the same basic ingredients. There’s a satisfying sense of DIY accomplishment, of sharing, of appreciation for what you eat.
Whenever I reach for the ingredients, I open a pantry of warm memories.
The white cloud that puffs from a bag of flour when you drop it on the countertop, the bubbles that form atop a bowl of activated yeast, the sticky paste that clings to my fingers – it’s simple sentimentality, I know, but it all makes me appreciate that Rearo and Tony gave me a job, tested my strength and taught me to make bread.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter, plus more for greasing pan
- 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 bottles of beer
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with spray oil or butter.
Combine the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil or butter and beer, and stir with a large spoon just until everything is combined.
Pour into the loaf pan and bake 45 to 60 minutes until nicely browned and a knife inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes before removing from the pan and serving.
NOTE: Experiment with the volume and type of beer till you get the flavor you like. My recipe uses 50 percent more beer than Bittman’s for added beer flavor and moistness.
If you’re not into measuring the ingredients, you can buy a simple kit. My sisters (who never worked at Sacchetti’s) adapted this recipe for a line of Joe Sixpack beer breads, sold at local craft markets and online at VictoriaOrchard.com.