Do you remember how when you first learned how to make bread—maybe your mother taught you, or someone else’s mom, or you learned it from a Junior League Cookbook—and how when you were young it seemed like such a fun thing at first because you got to play with dough, but by the end of the kneading, kneading, kneading, you wanted to never have to make bread again. Until, that is, your mom got a KitchenAid, and suddenly bread was easy. You just had to dump in some extra flour whenever it clung to the bowl and you could let it knead as long as you wanted. You could watch a whole episode of Murphy Brown while it was kneading.
(Somewhere in there your parents gave you a bread machine for Christmas—I think you were twelve—and that wasn’t as bad as it sounds, except that the bread was mediocre and the little paddle always got stuck in the bottom of the bread, and so one time you threw a molding loaf in the garbage and with it the paddle, and then the bread machine was immediately rendered useless.)
When you worked at a bread bakery in high school and during college summers, they had a saying: “Flour is your friend.” You used so much flour you had dreams about it. No one ever told you to be shy with flour. You’d scoop the flour out of garbage pails and always have a pile of it within reach: for bread, of course, but also for scones and cinnamon rolls and lemon bars and brownies. Nothing couldn’t use a little bit more flour. (I’m exaggerating a little bit.) But then you worked at a restaurant and were responsible for making the breadsticks, and in the method of the baker who trained you, the dry ingredients were fixed; the variable was the liquid. So into the mixer went the yeast and flour and salt and semolina flour, and you’d mix that up, and then you’d add some of the liquid, and then a little more, and then a little more if you needed it. There were no handfuls of flour flung around like fireworks. And when you rolled out the dough to slice it up, you’d dump oil on the countertop—not a frosting-thick layer of flour.
On my flight down to North Carolina last month to work on the veggie burger book at my Dad’s house, I read Jim Lahey’s new cookbook My Bread. In it he explains his “revolutionary, no-work, no-knead method” for making bread, which features a long, slow rise of a really wet dough, cooked in some kind of dutch oven (“an oven within an oven”) under high heat. Now, I know this is going to be good because Sullivan Street Bakery makes some of the most delicious bread in this city, but . . . no knead? And finally, when I started doing research for the hamburger recipe below, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen warned of over-flouring the dough: “The more flour you knead in, the tougher the buns will get.” Great.
The point here is that when it comes to bread, the rules are there for the b(re)aking. And also that when I started a working recipe for a hamburger bun, I had no clue where to begin. The Lahey method obviously wouldn’t be right here, so I began with the Smitten Kitchen recipe, eventually adapting it for a whole-wheat bun with a muskier flavor by using Blackstrap mollasses instead of sugar (in the end I went with a combination of both), and less salt, and a spattering of different types of seeds and grains on top. And it’s good! I must admit, because it makes sense, that you do want to be careful with the flour. Especially with the whole-wheat flour. If you use a dough scraper in one hand to help flip the dough and the other to knead, and then add flour in smaller doses than what you might be used to, you should be in good shape. I haven’t even tried it with my beloved KitchenAid yet; I think this recipe is a little too delicate.
Whole Wheat Hamburger Buns
Yield: 10 buns
1 c warm water (110-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
3 T whole milk, warm (110-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1 T molasses (preferably Blackstrap)
1 T granulated sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
2 c bread flour
1 1/4 c whole-wheat flour
2 t salt
2 T olive oil
1 egg, beaten
Eggwash: 1 beaten egg + 1 T water or milk
“Birdseed” garnish: 1 T wheat bran, 1 T toasted sesame seeds, 1 T flax seeds, 1 t black sesame seeds, 1 t poppyseeds, or any other combination (oatmeal, sea salt, quinoa, millet, etc)
Whisk together the warm water, milk, molasses, and sugar. Whisk in the yeast and then let stand for about 5 minutes, until the yeast begins to foam.
Whisk together the flours and salt. Add the yeast mixture, egg, and oil, and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until combined. Scrape out the mixture onto a clean, floured surface, and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add additional flour as needed, but avoid adding too much because it will toughen the dough. The best way I have found to knead a sticky dough like this is to use one hand to knead, and in the other hold a dough scraper, sliding it underneath the dough to flip it. Loosely shape into a round.
Pour a teaspoon of oil or so into the mixing bowl you’d just used (I don’t think it’s necessary that you clean it first, but that’s just me) and smear it around with your hand. Turn the dough into the bowl, flipping it twice so that it’s coated with the oil. Cover with a piece of saran wrap or a large tea cloth and let stand in a warm place until doubled in size, which will take anywhere from one to two hours.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface—again, not too much flour—and shape into ten rolls. To shape: Place a portion of dough onto a very lightly (or un-) floured surface. Place your writing hand over the portion and using your hand, loosely, as a cage with your fingers touching the surface of the table or countertop, swirl the dough against the table in a circle. It should only take about ten or fifteen seconds; the friction on the base of the dough causes it to collect at the base and shape itself into a circle.
Space the rolls by three or four inches on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover again with plastic wrap or a tea towel. Let stand in a warm place until doubled in size, which will take anywhere from one to two hours.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Brush the buns with eggwash, and then sprinkle the seed garnish, being sure to cover the bun as much as possible. Bake for 15 minutes, turning the pan halfway through. Cool completely.