Bread rises from the prairie

New cookbook features recipes from Midwestern farms, bakeries, homes

Judith Fertig has made something of a cottage industry out of chronicling the culinary culture and food ways of the Midwest. Her 1995 book "Pure Prairie" (Two Lane Press) put a contemporary spin on foods, both cultivated and wild, that are produced in this part of the country. Her "Prairie Home Cooking" (1999, Harvard Common Press) is a comprehensive look at Midwestern foods, from pioneer days to the present.

It seems only fitting that Ms. Fertig should complete her "prairie trilogy" with a book about bread baking. In "Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes From America's Breadbasket" (Harvard Common Press, $18.95), she draws on a variety of sources - from family recipes and 19th-century cookbooks to well-known bakers and serious hobbyists - to celebrate the abundance of the nation's breadbasket and the extraordinary wealth of gastronomic creations derived from wheat and other types of flour.

Nothing signifies hearth and home quite like a loaf of fresh-baked bread, and the recipes in "Prairie Home Breads" reflect the diverse cooking traditions of the many ethnic groups that have settled in the Midwest. One can find recipes for Farmhouse Rolls, classic rolls made with old-fashioned egg-bread dough, as well as Russian Mennonite Sour Rye Bread, Italian Slipper Bread, Challah, New Maxwell Street Bolillos, Plains Indian Fry Bread, and Spicy Pear Bread, a Swiss concoction.

Fertig's definition of bread is broad. Her book includes examples of just about anything made from flour, including naturally leavened, slow-rising, whole-grain and yeast breads, muffins, popovers, scones, biscuits, crackers, coffeecakes, and pastries.

In a recent interview, Fertig, who lives in Overland Park, Kan., noted a rising interest in breadmaking, due in large part, she believes, to the popularity of automatic bread machines. These machines will do everything, from mixing the ingredients to baking the loaf. Fertig herself uses such a machine, but only for mixing and kneading the dough.

"A lot of people are bread snobs and wouldn't touch one of those with a 10-foot pole," she says. "I think it has its place. If bread machines encourage people to make bread, I say go for it."

In her book, she indicates recipes for which she believes a machine does a superior job with mixing and kneading.

Even many avid cooks find bread-baking to be intimidating. For them as well as for novices, "Prairie Home Breads" includes many tips and techniques. Fertig, a native of Ohio, who studied at the Cordon Bleu in London and at La Varenne, then in Paris, teaches cooking classes in addition to writing.

She finds that many would-be home breadbakers suffer from a "fear of yeast." Fertig's advice is to buy an instant-read thermometer. "It will save a lot of grief," she says, as it can be used to tell if the water is the right temperature and whether the loaf is fully cooked at the center.

The recipes in "Prairie Home Breads" are for breadbakers of varying degrees of skill and ambition. Heart-of-the-Prairie Parmesan Rolls and the White Whole Wheat Bread, for example, are fairly short, simple recipes. Many of the "quick bread" recipes avoid the yeast challenge altogether. For serious bakers, there are numerous recipes for artisanal bread. For these, the starter alone can take anywhere from four to 15 days to ferment.

One of the trickiest recipes in the book is for Ozarks Salt-Rising Bread. This living antique depends upon wild yeast spores in the air for its leavening. Even the legendary James Beard complained that he couldn't always count on his salt-rising bread to come out right.

"Prairie Home Breads" also includes recipes for savories to be eaten on or with bread, such as Crabapple Jelly, Garden Pepper Relish, and Warm Goat Cheese with Fresh Basil.

And the source guide, which lists stores, catalogs, and websites that sell everything from whole-wheat berries and soy flour to whisks, is indispensable.

Irish Buttermilk Soda Bread

The classic quick bread, a cousin to the scone, uses baking soda as leavening. This moist version includes a hint of sweetness from the golden raisins. It is especially tasty when lightly toasted and buttered, and would be ideal for St. Patrick's Day breakfast.

3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups golden raisins, plumped in warm water and drained

2 large eggs, beaten

1-3/4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or glass pie dish, and set aside. Sift the dry ingredients together into a large bowl and stir in the raisins.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, buttermilk, and butter together with a wooden spoon; then pour the mixture into the dry ingredients and stir.

Spoon the dough into the prepared pan and bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Let cool, then remove bread from skillet or pie dish.

Makes 1 round loaf.

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