Like all Americans, I learned to bake using measuring cups and spoons, and have written all of my cookbooks, including baking books, using these standard American measures. When I lived in France, where cooks use weights for dry ingredients (as well as poetic measures like une noix de beurre, une pointe d’ail, a soupçon of this, a poignée of that), and bakers use them for both dry and wet ingredients, I began to see that using weights was a much easier and more accurate way to cook. But my editors have always insisted on measures. They might concede a metric conversion chart, hidden away in the appendix of the book, but they are convinced that American cooks will not buy cookbooks unless the traditional American measures are used.
Now I’m working with French baker Jacquy Pfeiffer on a pastry book, and he’ll have none of these cups and measuring spoons. He has a simple exercise that all of his students must do when they begin the baking course at his French Pastry School in Chicago, and I recommend that anybody who has doubts about the merits of weights over measures do this exercise as well: Measure 1 cup of flour 10 times and weigh it each time on a digital scale set to grams (grams are much more precise than ounces, as there are approximately 30 grams in an ounce). I guarantee you that you will get 10 different values.
If you want consistency in your baking, weights are the only way to go. Plus, using a scale makes the whole process of baking go much more quickly. You can scale an ingredient much more quickly than you can measure it. Scale all of your ingredients, set them up in the order in which you’ll use them, and you’re ready to go.
Having thrown in my measuring cups for a scale once and for all, I decided to go back to one of my oldest recipes, a signature mixed grains bread that I’ve been making since before I began my career as a cook, and reconfigure the recipe using metric weights. One by one, I will do this with every baked good in my repertoire, most of which involve whole grains, which vary tremendously in density, depending on the way they were ground. I do use cups in the recipe instructions, but as a delivery tool for adding grains or flours to dough, not as a measure.
Mixed Grains Bread
Yield: 2 loaves
This was my signature bread when I began cooking in the ’70s and it’s still a family favorite. It’s a dense, sweet, soft-crusted nourishing loaf, well suited for toast but not for sopping up sauces or soup the way a more porous bread would be.
For the sponge:
For the bread:
- Make the sponge. In a large bowl, combine the yeast and water and stir until dissolved. Stir in the honey and molasses. Whisk in the flours, a cup at a time. Stir or whisk this mixture 100 times, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, cover tightly with plastic and leave to rise in a warm spot for 1 hour, until bubbly.
- Add the oil to the sponge and fold in, using a large spoon or spatula. Add the salt and fold in. Fold in the grains, a cup at a time. By now the dough will be very thick and you should be able to scrape it out of the bowl in one amorphous piece. Place a half cup of flour on your work surface and scrape out the dough. Use a paddle to help fold the dough over to knead until it has absorbed the flour on your work surface, then flour your hands and knead the dough for 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough is elastic. Resist the temptation to add too much flour. Just keep scraping off the dough that sticks to your hands and keep them lightly floured. The dough will be very dense, not at all like wet doughs made with only flour and water; but it will still behave like dough when it is sufficiently kneaded, springing back slowly when you press it with your finger. Shape the dense, slightly tacky dough into a ball. Rinse and dry your bowl and coat with oil. Place the dough in it, then flip it over so that it is coated with oil. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled.
- Punch down the dough again, cover the bowl and allow to rise for another hour.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Divide the dough in two and shape into loaves. Place half the sesame seeds on your work surface and roll the top of one shaped loaf back and forth over the seeds until the surface is coated. Repeat with the remaining loaf and seeds. Oil 2 9-by-5-inch bread pans and place the loaves in the pans, seam side up first, then seam side down. Using a sharp knife, cut two or three ¼-inch deep slashes across the top of each loaf. Cover with a damp towel and allow to rise for 30 to 45 minutes, until the surface of the loaves has risen well above the edges of the pans.
- Gently brush the loaves with egg wash and place in the oven. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, brushing again with egg wash after 30 minutes. The bread is done when it is golden brown and responds to tapping with a hollow sound. Remove from the pans and cool on a rack.
Advance preparation: These loaves freeze well for several weeks, wrapped airtight. The bread will keep for about 5 days if you can keep it around for that long.
Photo: A loaf of mixed grains bread. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman