February 2, or Groundhog Day, falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and from a solar perspective is the midpoint of winter. Before the legend of the groundhog and his shadow, it was a very different time. It was a time of cold and dark and hunger giving way to light and warmth as the days steadily grow longer. It is a time to look forward to the coming spring, to begin preparations for the planting when the cold fades away and the earth is once again soft and warm and open.
My European ancestors called this day I Mbolc, meaning "in the womb", for it was around this time of year that the first lambs were born. They gave thanks to the goddess of home and hearth and mother to all - Brighid. This ancient fertility goddess was so popular among my forebears that as Catholicism spread to these northern regions of the Holy Roman Empire, reverence for Her could not be stamped out. And so She became St. Brighid, Her feast day sanitized into Candlemas. And the firing of big bonfires in celebration of the Mother of All and the fertility of the world was transmuted into the lighting of candles in honor of the mother of Christ and her purification after childbirth as required under the law of her land. While the elements of motherhood and womanhood associated with Brighid and Her feast remained in tact, the festival was decidedly altered.
Even so, people in Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of Europe still leave an offering on their hearths to their ancient mother, as do I. A traditional offering is fresh bread and warm milk. In honor of the ancient mother of my people, and in remembrance of those who have come before me, whose blood flows in my veins and strengthens my heart, I made a little milk bread.
You will need:
4 teaspoons dry active yeast
1 1/4 cup warm milk
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
about 5 cups flour
Mise en Place
First preheat your oven to its lowest setting. This will be useful for helping your bread rise, especially in the winter.
Then warm your milk and water to between 105-115 degrees. You don't want it any hotter than that or you risk killing your yeast and turning your bread into a brick. I warmed my liquids by measuring them into Pyrex measuring cups and placing the cups in the oven while it was heating up. I used a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature. If your liquids get too hot, let them cool until they are at the proper temperature.
This is hot enough
Once your liquids are warm, gently mix 1/4 cup of the milk with your yeast and let it rest for about 5 minutes or so - until the yeast has dissolved.
Yeast in milk
While that his happening, mix the rest of the milk and the water with your butter, sugar, and salt. Mix this gently until the sugar and salt have dissolved.
Add the yeast to the sugar mixture. Once combined, add three cups of the flour and stir it in until it is combined.
A wooden spoon is good for mixing the dough
Add the remaining flour, one cup at a time, using your hands to knead the dough together.
When it looks like this, it's time to use your hands
This is my favorite part of making bread. I love working the dough. It feels good in my hands, feels good to use my hands to make something. After a week of keyboard work, kneading dough gives your hands an opportunity to stretch. To me it always feels like a more natural movement. It lears my head and loosens the tension in my neck and shoulders. And then I have fabulous bread to boot.
And this is a fantastic dough - very smooth and elastic and easy to handle. It came together very easily for me.
Smooth and elastic and ready to rise
After kneading for about 10 minutes, your dough is ready for its first rise. Oil a large mixing bowl with a light oil - I used grape seed oil - and place your dough into the bowl, turning it over once to coat it. Cover it with a clean towel and place it in the warm oven to rise until doubled in size. In the warm oven, this will take about 45-60 minutes.
Once the first rise is complete, gently knead it again to release any air bubbles. You can knead it in the bowl or on a board. You can also dust it with flour if it feels sticky.
After the first rise
This bread recipe calls for a second rise. This can be done the same as the first rise. Or, if you need to leave the house to run errands, you can do a slow rise keeping the dough one the counter.
Whatever you choose, the second rise is complete when the dough has again doubled in size.
After the second rise, and much later in the day
Knead the dough to release any air bubbles, and shape it onto loaves. This recipe will make two full loaves, or six mini loaves. I made a combination of the two - one full loaf and three minis.
Place the shaped loaves in greased bread pans. I am partial to Pyrex as you can watch the progress of your bread through the glass. Cover the loaves with a towel and place in your warm oven for one last rise.
Keep an eye on things this time as you only want the dough to crest the bread pans. My dough did this in about 30 minutes.
Heat up your oven to 450. Bake the bread for about 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another 30 or so minutes.
This bread did not get nearly as brown as most breads get in my oven. This stuff stayed a nice milky white with golden edges, so I really had to trust the recipe.
Milky white bread with a golden crust
Once out of the oven, the bread easily slid out of my pans onto the wire rack to cool.
This bread has a solid crust and a salty flavor when eaten plain. My counterpart and I enjoyed some later in the day with unsalted butter and raspberry jam. In context, the bread was quite good and should work well with one of our typical dinners.
Bread and jam for Mary
I will leave a slice out on my hearth for Brighid this evening, my heart filled with hope for the coming spring and the return of warm and sunny days.