Better Amish Friendship Bread

The moment we’ve been waiting for since February 24 has arrived. In an effort to create a version of Amish Friendship Bread that I actually like, I’ve turned our house into a bread factory over the last few months. I’m pleased to say that these attempts have not been in vain.

I started with the original recipe, below.

Original Amish Friendship Bread

I’m not sure this is the original starter, but it’s what I found on the Internet. There are many versions that use yeast, but I suspect this one did not.

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar

Put ingredients in plastic bag and seal.

Day 1: Do nothing.
Days 2 – 5: Mash the bag
Day 6: Add 1 c. plain flour, 1 c. sugar, 1 c. milk, and mash the bag.
Days 7 – 9: Mash the bag.

Day 10:
Pour entire contents of bag into a non-metal bowl. Add 1 cup plain flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 1/2 c. milk. Mix.

Measure out 4 bags of 1 c. each. Put batter into Ziplock gallon bags and keep a starter for yourself and give the others to 3 friends with a copy of the recipe.

Baking Instructions

Preheat oven to 375. To remaining batter in bowl add and stir:

3 eggs
1 c. oil (or 1/2 c. oil and 1/2 c. applesauce)
1/2 c. milk
1 c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
2 c. plain flour
1 lrg. Box instant vanilla or choc. Pudding (surely the Amish cook who added this was excommunicated)
1 c. raising or chopped nuts (opt.)

Grease 2 large loaf pans. In a bowl mix 1/2 c. sugar and 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Dust the pans with 1/2 of this mixture. Pour batter evenly into 2 pans and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar mix over top. Bake for 1 hour.

And Now for Something Completely Different

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that no one has enough friends to keep this up. Maybe you know dozens of people who want to keep rotting dough in plastic bags around the house and bake bread every 10 days, but I don’t. After just one month I felt like the owner of an unspayed cat, with kittens everywhere and no idea who would take them. And you are one blessed person, or an Olympic marathoner, if you can eat this stuff week after week and not become a bloated testament to the effects of a sugar-infested, overprocessed American diet.

I also wanted a recipe that didn’t completely cover up the flavor of the starter itself. Starters, after all, are the key ingredient for wonderful sourdough breads, and what better way to make one than with, um, soured dough? I’d hoped that the friendship bread would have the nice bite of one of these loaves, but it was, alas, buried in the onslaught of sugar, cinnamon, and the lrg. Box of inst. Pudding.

My experiments over the last couple of months have led to a series of recipes that alter the original so much that to call it a “variation” would be ridiculous. So I’m christening this “Newlywed Bread” because a) it rhymes; b) two people can eat a loaf in a week without gaining so much weight together that they have to spend every Monday night at Weight Watchers; and c) like newlywed couples, cooks who make this don’t have to share even one tiny bit of it with another living soul.

The starter is simple and very forgiving. The only trick is not to use any metal when working with the starter (though using metal in the baking process seems to work fine.)

Newlywed Bread Starter

1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk

I put this in a glass bowl covered with a towel (hand-embroidered, of course, to remind me that I’m a little old lady at heart). Yeast does not seem to be necessary, and I like to think it’s because this starter works like the ones for sourdough bread, which absorb yeast from the environment.

Instructions

Day 1: Do nothing.
Days 2 – 5: Stir with wooden or plastic utensil.
Day 6: Add 1 1/2 c. flour, 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 c. milk.
Days 7 – 9: Stir.
Day 10: Bake (recipes below).

After the first ten days, feed the starter every 5 – 10 days. It is a living thing and requires nutrition to keep going. It will rise up overnight into a bubbly mass if it is healthy. If it starts to rise less, lose its bubbly texture, or quits rising altogether, it needs to eat. Feed it:

1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 c. whole milk (I use 1% with a little half and half)

You can add half this amount (3/4 c. flour, 1/4 c. sugar, 1/2 c. milk) if your starter is getting too big.

Every ten days or so, you should bake a loaf. You can bake more often if you like; just feed the starter whenever you remove some for baking. If you can’t bake very often and your starter gets too big, you can freeze it, refrigerate it, discard some of it, or–heaven forbid–give some to a friend along with a copy of the recipe.

All of these breads have a hearty whole wheat texture. Most are still on the sweet side, but they’re closer to bran muffins than cakes. Most also include buttermilk, which add an extra bit of sourness–perfect for the sour among us, without enough friends to share.

Newlywed Bread Basic Recipe

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 1 loaf pan.

Remove 1 c. starter and place in large mixing bowl. Add to starter:

3 eggs
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 c. melted butter (add to buttermilk to cool before adding to mix)

Whisk together in separate bowl:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oats
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. brown sugar

Add dry ingredients to batter mix and stir. Pour into loaf pans and bake one hour. Remove from pan and cool.

I’ve made several variations on this recipe, though the “variations” are often quite different. Below are some favorites.

Sweet Potato Newlywed Bread

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 1 loaf pan.

Mix together in large bowl:

1 c. starter
1/2 c. baked sweet potato, mashed
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. melted butter (add to buttermilk to cool)
3 eggs

Whisk together:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oats
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 c. brown sugar

Pour in loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.

Variation: Maple Fig

Replace sweet potato with 1/4 cup pureed fig preserves and 1/2 c. maple syrup. Increase oats to 1 cup.

Irish Soda Newywed Bread

This one is more like a hearty sandwich bread, with only slightly sweet taste, and with the strong soda flavor characteristic of the orignal Irish version. It’s baked as a round rather than in a loaf pan to give it a beautiful crispy crust all over.

Fred prefers this loaf sweeter than I do, so simply increase the sugar to 3/4 cup if you want more of a breakfast bread.

Preheat oven to 400. Grease bottom of cookie sheet.

Mix together in large bowl:

1 c. starter
1 c. buttermilk
2 1/2 tbsp. melted butter (add to butter milk to cool before mixing)

Whisk together:

2 c. oats
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 – 3/4 c. brown sugar (depending on sweetness you prefer)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. salt

Add dry ingredients to batter and stir until mixture comes together. Turn out on floured surface and knead about 15 strokes. Form into round loaf shape and place on cookie sheet. Bake for 1 hour (check after 45 minutes for doneness.) Brush with melted butter.

New variations keep emerging. I’ll keep you posted.

Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Onion, and A Friendship Bread Update

1. Amish Friendship Bread Update

Above are two of the most recent Friendship Bread experiments. The one on the right, a whole-wheat version with honey, was quite good. Since then, however, I have developed a superior loaf with whole wheat, oats, and brown sugar. I’m setting out a new starter–I found the recipe on the Internet, of course–to make sure the recipe will work, so it will be at least 10 days before I post on this again.

2. Mashed Potatoes

It’s darn near impossible to beat the creamy, luscious tastiness of mashed potatoes. But since that lusciousness results largely from vast quantities of butter and cream, Fred and I have struggled to keep mashed potatoes on our slimmed-down menu.

I’m the problem. I pretend to be a normal cook, the kind of person who makes desserts with Kool Whip. But the truth is that I am a horrible snob when it comes to food–a dreadful, pretentious, unyielding, unforgiving snob. While others at our Weight Watchers meeting are raving about recipes that call for cake mix combined with diet soda (I only wish I were joking here), or fat-free HoHos, or the menu items at Chili’s that have less than 7 points, I can only smile weakly with supressed horror. Why are they not making cakes from scratch? Who eats at chain restaurants? And why do they not recognize that “fat-free” foods are the worst abominations of the agricultural/military/industrial complex?

My pretensions kept me from using fat-free sour cream or fat-free half and half in any mashed potato recipe. Buttermilk, which is rich but tends to be lower in fat, seemed an acceptable substitute. But the butter, with no “real” alternative, posed a thorny problem.

Luckily, I am a woefully inconsistent snob. I am a sucker for processed foods from the 1970s, the beloved companions of childhood. I will happily lap up cans of Spaghetti O’s, heaps of Hamburger Helper Lasagna, vats of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and gallons of Kool-Aid. And it’s a good thing for these mashed potatoes that among those foods, margarine holds a special place in my heart.

My health-concious mother, lured by advertising claims that margarine was the healthy option, kept it on hand along with the wheat germ and the embarassing slices of whole-grain bread that encased our bologna sandwiches. My grandmother, across the street, was providing butter churned from cows my grandfather had milked by hand. But my palate, captivated by the salty, flavor-filled chemical overload of margarine, rejected the subtle delicacy of fresh butter. And so even today, there is always a tub of non-dairy spreadin my refrigerator–these days, it’s Brummel and Brown, which uses actual dairy products. It’s right next to the unsalted organic butter.

The Brummel and Brown is essential for this recipe if you are counting calories. If not, butter will do quite well. Roasted onions add flavor and additional liquid without resorting to a lot of cream.

Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Onion

Makes 4 servings

Preheat oven to 350. Take two whole, unpeeled onions and place on cookie sheet. Roast in oven until very soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly, cut off ends, and remove skin. When onions have about 30 minutes remaining, peel and slice potato. Place in enough salted water to cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer on medium-low heat until potatoes are very soft, about 20 – 30 minutes. Drain potatoes and place in food processor with blade inserted. Add 1 – 2 tbsp. Brummel and Brown or butter, 2 -4 tbsp. half and half, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover until Brummel and Brown has melted. Add onions and process until just smooth. Add more half and half if needed and adjust seasonings. Serve hot.

Friendless Amish Bread

A couple of weeks ago, after some 20 years of effort, I finally secured a starter for Amish Friendship Bread. (Actually, “effort” might be too strong a word, since my exertions consisted primarily of watching languid thoughts meander across my brain: “Wonder if someone will ever offer me a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”)

I’d first encountered Amish Friendship Bread when someone gave a loaf to my grandmother, and other family members had received loaves over the years. The concept was fascinating: The loaf began as a starter consisting of soured dough. The starter, filled with living cultures and bacteria and God knows what else, functioned as the leavening agent. You had to “feed” it to keep it alive, and as it grew you passed the excess along to your friends–hence the name “Friendship Bread.” Legend has it that the starter originally came from the Amish, who passed it around their community along with the recipe. But someone in the community obviously let the secret slip, and before they knew it people like me, who couldn’t even harness a buggy, were wanting to make it.

Once, in my late 20s, I asked my Granny about a loaf she’d received. “How do you make the starter?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Someone has to give it to you.”

“But how does that person make it?”

“Well, they get it from someone else.”

“But someone HAS to know how to make the starter.”

“I don’t know,” Granny repeated. “I’ve always just heard you had to get the starter from someone. I guess it’s a secret.”

“But it has to start somewhere.”

“I think you have to have a friend give it to you,” Granny replied, probably worrying, “And how will she find any with questions like these?” quietly to herself.

I gave up. I was in grad school, and we didn’t hang around with the kind of people who gave loaves of friendship bread to each other. That was for women who made crafts and attended PTA meetings. My friends wore black, hung out in smelly coffee houses, and believed that literary theorists like us were well on our way to eliminating war, hunger, and racism. Or at least to offering a scathing critique of those who were trying.

And then there was the problem of the bread itself. Resembling a forlorn, sunken loaf of bleached banana bread, it tasted like a gluey, sickeningly sweet cross between a liquified cinnamon roll and a week-old birthday cake from the supermarket. I was able to choke down no more than a slice or two before I had to throw out the remainder of what my Granny gave me.

Still, I longed for a starter of my own. I wanted a Foucault-loving friend who would show up on the door of my apartment in a black turtleneck, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and hand over a loaf of Friendship Bread with a starter in a hand-crafted wooden bowl with the recipe carved on the side. But that friend never materialized, and my desire for starter went the same way as my plans to take the Orient Express clear through to China and marry George Clooney.

And then just the other day Carol in my office piped up, “Would you like a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”

Would I like to marry George Clooney? (Wait. I can’t answer that question in the same way anymore. Let’s rephrase.) Do I think Fred Wise is the best husband on earth? And so I eagerly awaited the arrival of my starter, in its wooden bowl covered with a towel and accompanied by a hand-lettered recipe on a home-calligraphied index card.

I was a little surprised, a few days later, to find a Ziploc bag on my office chair, filled with what appeared to be yellowish glue, with a two-page computer printout from the Internet taped to the side. The instructions told me to “mash the bag” every day for 5 days, add 1 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk on day 6, and mash the bag again every day until day 10. On that day I was to create more starter by adding flour, sugar, and milk to the bag, separating the starter into more plastic bags for my friends, and then baking a loaf of bread that included “1 lrg. Box instant vanilla or choc. Pudding” in its ingredients.

Experience with Microsoft AutoCorrect suggests that the errant capitals here don’t stem from an 18th-century love of creative spelling, and I have a strong suspicion that you won’t find “instant” anything in most Amish kitchens. Still, I believe in my Friendship Bread. Ignoring the “friendship” part by hoarding every new bit of starter for myself, I’ve embarked on a new project to create a recipe that I will actually like. As I type this, several bags of starter lurk about the kitchen–enough to make 32 loaves of bread.

There have been two failures so far, one an apple-cinnamon version and a whole-wheat variety that was good warm but tasted like sawdust once it had cooled. But there was also a very successful apple-black walnut bread, and two new whole-wheat versions have just emerged from the oven. I will post recipes as soon as I get the starter thing figured out. I’ll have to find an Amish lady. Or check the Internet.

Focaccia Results, and Happy Birthday Rocco

I am pleased to report that 4-H and Lidia did not let me down in yesterday’s focaccia attempt, even though I misspelled Lidia’s name. Neither did my Cuisinart–a valuable ally who was not present during my youthful struggles with yeast breads, nor during later misguided attempts to make bread without “cheating” (i.e., doing things in an easier and more efficient way).

I hope that Rocco, whose actualy birthday is today and in whose honor this bread was made, will be pleased with these results.

Here is the recipe, modified slightly from Lidia’s Italy–a beautifully illustrated collection of Italian recipes that I highly recommend.

Onion-Tomato Focaccia

Makes 1 large round; serves 10 or more as a side dish

Dough

2 packets active dry yeast (I used outdated rapid rise)
2 1/4 cups warm water or as needed
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil for bread bowl

Topping

1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (about 2 c.)
2 c. tomatoes, diced (original calls for cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 tsp. coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 c. warm water and let it sit for several minutes, until it begins to bubble. Put flour and salt in food-processing bowl. Stir together yeast and 2 c. lukewarm water in spouted measuring cup. With processor running continuously, blend flour and salt briefly, then pour in all the liquid through the feed tube and process for about 30 seconds. A soft, moist dough should gather on the blade, with some sticking to the sides of the bowl. Add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, if dough is too sticky and has not come off sides at all; add more water in small amounts if it’s too dry.

[NOTE: I misread the recipe and added the yeast directly into the 2 c. lukewarm water, then poured into the food processor before it bubbled. But luckily focaccia is a forgiving dough.]

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I used a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel), scraping bowl and blade clean. Knead by hand for a minutes, using as little flour as possible, until dough forms a smooth round, still soft and a bit sticky. Coat a big bowl with olive oil, drop in dough, and turn to oil it all over. Seal bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 20 – 30 minutes (1 hour if using regular yeast).

After the dough has risen, it should look like this:


While dough is rising, toss together onions, tomatoes, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. salt in small bowl and let them marinate.


Coat a large shallow baking dish or pan, bottom and sides, with 2 tbsp. or more olive oil. Deflate risen dough and lay it in the pan. Gently press and stretch it into an evenly flat round (or square, as you see below) that fills the pan. If dough is resistant, let it relax a few minutes.

Lift the marinated tomato and onion out of the bowl with a slotted spoon, draining off juices. (Lidia failed to mention you are to reserve these, so I ate them.) Scatter vegetables all over focaccia. Lightly press in with your fingertips to create dimples in the soft dough. Drizzle the marinating oil that you did not eat over the top, or if you did eat it, olive oil works quite well. It will look like this:


Let the focaccia rise, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Set a baking stone, if you have one, on center rack in oven and heat to 425. Just before baking, gently dimple the dough again with your fingertips, and sprinkle another 1/2 tsp. coarse salt all over.

Puzzle over why Lidia ever expected you to slide this enormous square thing onto your round, medium-sized pizza stone, which perhaps is different from a baking stone but you aren’t sure. Decide that Lidia probably left out a sentence or made a typo, and anyway you have only 5 hours till your dinner party and can’t afford the disaster that will surely occur if a transfer is attempted. Set pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and cross fingers. Bake focaccia for 20 minutes, rotate pan back to front for even cooking, and bake 10 – 15 minutes (or more) until bread is golden brown and onions and tomatoes are nicely carmelized.

Remove from pan and top with remaining olive oil and crumbled oregano. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Give thanks for wonderful bread and friends. Wonder if Martha White would let you enter this in the next 4-H breadbaking contest.

1981 Breadbaking Champion Attempts Focaccia

In the spring of 1981, I was crowned the Tennessee 4-H District III breadbaking champion and traveled to Knoxville for the state competition that summer. Several key facts about the event should be noted.

a) The contest coincided with Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding–a great disappointment to a 16-year-old who had been waiting to see the dress for months.

b) When I did see the dress, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created, and I could not imagine that those puffy sleeves would ever, ever look dated.

c) Contestants in the breadbaking competition were judged on 1) a project book, which recorded all breadbaking activities over the course of your 4-H career; 2) an oral exam by state extension agents and representatives of the Martha White Flour company (sponsor of the event); and 3) no baking whatsoever.

d) I did not win.

e) Had we baked, I certainly would not have won.

In sum, I was a breadbaking champion who was more interested in the intricacies of Princess Di’s dress than in the chemical interactions that were making my loaves so tough.

Despite this, on an impulse that can only be called “stupidity,” I volunteered to make bread for a dinner party that starts in about 7 hours. I was intrigued because one of the guests is allergic to all oils except olive, does not eat dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a host of other things, and wrote the book I just finished. And so I am attempting Lydia Bastianich’s recipe for onion-tomato focaccia from Lydia’s Italy. Results will be posted.

I bake this in honor of my friend Rocco Marinaccio, who is having his 50th birthday bash in the Berkshires today and who gave us Lydia’s Italy for our wedding. Happy birthday, honey, and I’m sorry I can’t be there!

Oh Lard II

I am too tired from Easter “vacation” to write much. After working all day Friday around the house, trying to get our lives in something resembling order, Fred and I went to Elberton, Georgia on Saturday, where he preached on Sunday. I am pooped.

But feeling energetic on Friday morning, I used the lard to make biscuits. Results were not quite as satisfactory as with the soup. The biscuits were tender but too salty. I used Mrs. Dull’s recipe, which calls for “shortening.” Below is a modified version that should work better next time:

Sift together:
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder

Cut in:
4 tbsp. lard

Stir in until just mixed:
1 cup buttermilk

Knead on well-floured surface until just mixed and smooth. Roll or spread out to 1/2″ thick. Cut with biscuit cutter or glass into size you like. Bake at 450 for 10 minutes or until brown.

"Italian Grits" Revisited

Okay, so I seem to be a tiny bit . . . wrong . . . about polenta being a form of Italian grits.

I blame my grandparents. They used ground-up cornmeal for the dish they called grits, but apparently grits are made from ground hominy. Polenta is made from cornmeal mush, and it’s stirred a LOT longer–30 minutes, by hand. About.com has a good article on the subject with some interesting recipes as well. While grits are generally the consistency of oatmeal, polenta is usually much firmer.

Both foods have the distinction of causing pellagra (niacin deficiency) if you try to survive on them exclusively, as poor people in northern Italy and the southern US used to do. So that’s one thing they DO have in common.

Paul, I hope this helps answer your question.