Nothing quite tastes like home to me as much as homemade bread and soup. When I was young and I was sick, Mom always hauled out the Beef and Vegetable Soup—either she got it from the freezer or she made it fresh—and made homemade bread. To this day I desperately crave broth in particular when I am feeling under the weather—which is definitely a comment on a childhood association since when I am healthy I prefer thicker soups and stews with lots of strong flavors. And the minute soup is on the menu, so is homemade bread—another indication of associations with Mom’s cooking. John prefers to dip his in the soup, but I have to admit I recoil from that. I like mine hot, slathered with a good European style butter that melts into every nook and cranny of the slice. Oddly, since when it is cool the next day (or on those few occasions I buy bread) I don’t like the heel, when it is fresh and hot I love the crusty heel.
Unlike my mom, who leans toward hearty Midwestern soups and (when my dad gets his way) simple chicken soups, my favorite flavors in soup tend to be heavily spiced, usually Latin and Mexican, but I also love just about anything with butternut squash or pumpkin and am always willing to experiment with Asian flavors. This meal was supposed to be vegetarian, but I did end up using chicken stock and lard in it, but I promise that the recipes are easily adapted to vegetarian versions. And they are both delicious.
For the soup I made a Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque, per my husband’s request. I usually make a lot of butternut squash and pumpkin soups in the fall and winter but this year it had not happened, for a myriad of reasons, and so he requested I make one. This dish is one of the more basic butternut squash soups out there, allowing the squash to really shine, and it is elegant in its simplicity. This recipe can be made with either vegetable or chicken stock, and I chose chicken stock. (Random tangential complaint: I have a hard time finding low sodium organic commercial vegetable stock, so when I need to resort to using store bought stock I almost always reach for chicken, as I prefer the low sodium versions).
For the bread I made the Taos Sun Bread with a few changes from Beth Hensperger’s Breads of the Southwest: Recipes in the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican Traditions. This book is a holiday acquisition, and I have been excited to use it. I bought it after trying the Taos Pumpkin Bread recipe from it, which is one of the absolute best yeast breads I have ever made. The recipes in it are very traditional, with a lot of tortillas and cornbreads, as well as yeasted breads. The Sun Bread is from the “Old Tradition” part of the book, and it is a Pueblo Native American recipe.
The Sun Bread was not quite as spectacular as the pumpkin bread, but quite good nonetheless, tangy with buttermilk and sweet with honey and cornmeal. It has lard in it, but you could easily use corn oil for a slightly less flavorful but still tasty vegetarian version. I chose the lard not just for the flavor but also because when it comes to traditional recipes, I always try to take the more traditional route. And I keep freshly rendered, local lard in my freezer anyway. I would not use commercial, processed, pure white lard for this–it has no flavor and you might as well use corn oil, which has less saturated fat. The bread is traditionally shaped into a sunburst crescent round, but I used loaf pans for ease of baking (and also because quite frankly while I can appreciate the rounds aesthetically, I don’t find them very practical—this bread made great grilled cheese the next day, for example, which would have been more difficult with a round).
Adapted from Bon Appétit
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 1/4 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 1/4 cups (or more) vegetable/chicken broth
1/2 cup apple juice or cider (I prefer cider)
salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh chives
Melt butter in large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and nutmeg; sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add squash, broth, apple, and apple juice. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer uncovered until squash and apple are tender, about 30 minutes. Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth (I use an immersion blender). Return soup to pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if desired. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with sour cream and chives.
Depending on the quality and freshness of the produce, I might need to make some last minute adjustments if the soup tastes too dull. Adjustments that I prefer include: apple cider vinegar, 1-2 tablespoons of brown sugar or honey, and a teaspoon of ground cumin. I have had this soup where it needed nothing done to it and I have had this soup where it needed all of that done to it. It all depends on the butternut squash and apples used.
Adapted from Beth Hensperger’s Breads of the Southwest
1 ½ cups of whole buttermilk*
½ cup cornmeal, white or yellow, fine or medium grind
1/3 cup honey
3 T melted lard (or corn oil)
1 T active dry yeast
pinch of brown sugar
¼ cup warm water
2 t salt
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
4 cups of bread flour (give or take a little)
In a medium saucepan, bring the buttermilk to a boil, whisking, and then add the cornmeal to the buttermilk in a slow drizzle, whisking the whole time. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, whisking the entire time. It will become a thick porridge. Stir in the lard and honey. Scrape the mixture into a large mixing bowl or the bowl for your mixer. Set aside to cool for 20 minutes.
Check the temperature of the buttermilk porridge, either with a thermometer (it needs to be under 120 F) or your finger (it should be lukewarm). When it is cool enough, add the salt and whole wheat pastry flour to the porridge and beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the yeast and 1 cup of the bread flour and beat one medium speed for an additional minute. Then add the rest of the bread flour, ½ cup at a time, on low speed, until the dough becomes a soft, shaggy mass that just clears the side of the bowl. (Switch from paddle to dough hook when a rough mass forms.)
Knead the dough either by hand (3-5 minutes) or by machine, 1-3 minutes. I took around 3-4 minutes because I needed to add a bit more flour to get the dough less sticky. The final dough should be quite soft and somewhat sticky, but ultimately you should be able to form a ball with the dough. Place it in a greased large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise until doubled in bulk, 1-1 ½ hours.
Grease 2 9X5 loaf pans. Divide the dough in half, gently deflating and patting down. Form the dough into oblong balls, stretching the dough across one side to pinch underneath the other side. Place the ovals, seam side down, into the loaf pans. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.
About 20 minutes before baking, turn the oven on and preheat to 450 F.
When you are ready to place the loaves into the oven, turn the oven temperature down to 350 F and place the loaves in the oven. Set a timer for 40 minutes—if your oven heat is uneven as mine is you will want to rotate the pans front to back and side to side at the 20 minute mark. Start checking the loaves for doneness at the 40 minute mark, although it could take up to 10 minutes longer. The loaf should be nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped. You can also use an instant read thermometer—the loaves should be 200 F internally.
Turn the loaves out of their pans and place on a cooling rack.
Many professional bread bakers will tell you to wait until the bread is cooled to slice. I have never met a bread eater yet who didn’t prefer hot bread. The key of course is waiting long enough that your loaves do not totally squish when you slice them; I usually find that 20-30 minutes will do the trick. Likewise, when we have leftovers the next night, I wrap the second loaf entirely in foil and then place it in a 300 F oven. After 15 minutes or so I remove the bread and voila! We have hot bread for dinner.
*Hensperger calls for 1½ cups of water to make the cornmeal porridge and then adds ½ cup buttermilk powder to the bread with the whole wheat pastry flour. This would make a lower fat bread—but I did not have buttermilk powder, so I used whole milk buttermilk to ensure it would not curdle.