Tuesday, November 11, 2008
My book club read Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, this month--a novel about a taciturn 67-year-old widower who retreats to a rustic house in an isolated spot in Norway. I know, it sounds like a real page-turner, doesn't it? But it's a marvelous book, and beautifully written. Our book club eats well, with the host providing the main course and the rest of us filling in. It was my turn to bring bread, and I wanted to make something appropriately Norwegian.
Most of the Norwegian bread recipes I came across were for lefse. There are many Norwegians in Minnesota, and they go crazy for lefse around Christmas-time. Lefse is a potato-based flatbread that's apparently too bland even for Scandinavians in its pristine state, but they claim it's terrific if you put lots of butter and sugar on it. Or maybe it just tastes good compared to ludefisk, the other Norwegian Christmas taste treat--that's the yummy lye-cured fish. Anyway, I didn't want to make lefse (or ludefisk, for that matter).
I finally found a recipe for this Norwegian wheat bread in James Beard's Beard On Bread cookbook. According to Beard, this bread is taught in the Norwegian Government School for Domestic Science Teachers in Oslo. Sounds like a cheery bunch of folks. It's made with whole wheat, rye, and white flours, milk, yeast, and salt. He describes it as a "very dense, coarse bread full of honest flavor." The word "honest" should have given me a clue that it might be the kind of bread that seems good for you, like you will get points in heaven merely for eating it. Unlike a croissant, for example, which gives you no points, but is heavenly to eat. Beard does give fair warning that the dough will be "stiff and difficult to knead." And it was.
This dough almost killed my KitchenAid mixer, which started to groan and get over-heated after about five minutes. I took the dough out and kneaded it by hand, or attempted to knead it. I whacked it and pounded it, and it barely moved. Then I tried to shape it into a round loaf.
I could not shape this bread for the life of me. I finally decided that since it was supposed to be free-form and rustic, that's what it would be. I thought that the ladies at the Norwegian Government School for Domestic Science would not be happy with this attempt, but that Trond, the hero of the book, probably wouldn't much care. I also harbored a secret hope that it would somehow reshape itself nicely while it was baking. No such luck.
This is its most photogenic angle:
This is its least photogenic angle:
I sneaked the bread over to Sally's house in a plain brown wrapper so no one would see its deformities, and I craftily sliced it in the kitchen, away from prying eyes. It looked ... honest ... and sturdy.
If you imagined it in a sunny Norwegian kitchen, freshly sliced and slathered with sweet butter, it sounded pretty good. But if you imagined it on a dismal, gray, winter day, day-old and eaten with that nasty brown gjetost cheese, well, you could do better.