With every new year, I find myself going back to bread. It’s the opposite of what we’re “supposed” to do in January; I should be telling you about a new energizing juice cleanse. But if we diet to restore the body, we bake to restore the spirit, cultivating the qualities we wish to embody throughout the year: the determination to begin, the self-assuredness to knead the dough, the resourcefulness to change course if it goes awry, the patience as it rises, the patience as it cooks, the patience as it cools.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote about his two years on Walden Pond. He wasn’t referring to bread specifically, but baking requires a calmness, a deliberateness of the mind. No wonder it was one of the writer’s preferred ways to spend a day. As he wrote in Walden, “I like best the bread which I have baked, the garment which I have made, the shelter which I have constructed, the fuel which I have gathered.”
Thoreau’s tiny cabin was an early version of America’s Test Kitchen: The writer ran hundreds of little experiments on his bread recipe, borrowing local Native American techniques and even going back to Roman times for tips. Hoping to save on the cost of yeast, he dug up Cato the Elder’s unleavened recipe: “Put the meal into the trough, add water gradually, and knead it thoroughly. When you have kneaded it well, mould it, and bake it under a cover.” Bread hasn’t changed much since (although our instructions are decidedly longer).
Although Thoreau baked year-round, it was in the dark New England winters when he gave it special care. “In cold weather it was no little amusement to bake several small loaves … tending and turning them.” Baking helped counteract the mental freeze that came with the cold. “Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolution of the seasons,” he wrote in his journal. “Now I am ice, now I am sorrel.” We can’t be sorrel—vivacious and fresh—the whole year. But we can be warm, calm, comforting. We can be bread.
Almost as if anticipating the current assault on carbs, Thoreau’s passionate defense of his favorite food resonates today as it did in that small cabin. “Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy.”
Thoreau’s final, unfinished manuscript, Wild Fruits, takes “locavore” to a whole new level. A comprehensive catalog of Massachusetts produce, it also details how surrounding tribes used them in their breads—from milling corn and nuts into flour to adding fruit to the dough.
Thoreau tested out these ideas himself, and though he ultimately decided against an all-corn or all-nut flour (finding “a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable”), he was won over by the fruit. That might explain the rumor that Thoreau invented raisin bread: Recipes existed since the 1700s, but Thoreau made it mainstream, from the wilds of Massachusetts to the kitchens of Concord.
This loaf marries the sweetness of those raisins with the nuttiness of hazelnut meal (Thoreau tried acorns, but good luck finding them at Trader Joe’s). For the perfect two-ingredient picnic, wrap a loaf in newspaper and head out into the woods. You’ll have everything you need: nature, nourishment, and a convenient carrying case that also serves as lunchtime reading.
1/2 cup raisins
2 cups whole hazelnuts
1 tablespoon active yeast
1 cup rye flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. In a small bowl, cover raisins in warm water until just submerged. Set aside to soak.
2. Spread hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and roast 7 to 8 minutes, until skins appear cracked. Let cool, then rub in a clean dish towel until skins are removed. Add half the hazelnuts to a food processor and pulse until finely ground meal. Coarsely chop remaining hazelnuts and set aside. Turn off oven.
3. In a small bowl, combine yeast with 3/4 cup lukewarm water and let stand until foaming, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine both flours, salt, and 1/2 cup hazelnut meal.
4. Add yeast mixture to flour mixture, stirring until a dough forms. Strain raisins, reserving the soaking liquid. On a floured surface, knead dough, folding in raisins and hazelnuts periodically, 10 to 12 minutes. If dough is too dry, add soaking liquid as needed.
5. Place dough in a large oiled bowl and cover with a soft cloth. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 2 to 3 hours.
6. Preheat oven to 350°F. Punch down dough and shape into 2 small ovals. Transfer to baking sheet, re-cover, and let rise another 30 minutes. Remove cloth and bake 30 minutes, or until crust is golden.