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November 20, 2007

A Recipe: Michael Barr's Bread

If you're home for the holidays and looking to whip up a little something homemade, you could do a lot worse than this bread recipe. It's something my father came up with years ago. My parents are visiting for Thanksgiving and the family has been going through about one of these a day.

The ingredient list and instructions may seem a bit daunting, but the taste is worth it. And it's actually a very forgiving bread in terms of being able to rise for different times, have a different mix of ingredients, etc.


  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 cup corn meal
  • 1/2 cup Red River cereal *
  • 1/3 cup powdered milk
  • 1 cup oats (plain Quaker Oats is fine, don't get the 1 minute stuff)
  • Heaping teaspoon salt
  • Light teaspoon sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoons or one packet yeast
  • About 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • About 2.5 cups white flour
  • Enough butter for the pan and top of the bread

* Red River is a cereal containing wheat, rye, and flax, a proud child of the Canadian prairie. It's available in Canada and they also sell it at QFC in the Seattle area, and possibly elsewhere. If you can't find it, I presume you could mix wheat, rye, and flax together, although I don't know the proportion in Red River.

You also need a bread pan, a small pot (2 quarts is good), a measuring cup (2 cups is good), a teaspoon, a whisk, and something to mix the dough in. The instructions assume a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook. The KitchenAid mixer is that one that Williams-Sonoma is constantly hocking in seasonal colors; KitchenAid's website helpfully provides a picture of a dough hook. If by some chance you don't have one of those machines, then you can use any mixing bowl, start the mixing with a strong spoon, and finish it by hand. The mixer just makes it a bit less work. Oh, and you need an oven also.

If you haven't made bread before, then you will have to experiment a bit before you get a sense of when you have added the right amount of flour--the best description is that the bread starts to feel like a bread.

Anyway, this is what you do:


  1. Combine 1/2 cup corn meal, 1/2 cup Red River, 1/3 cup powdered milk, 1 cup oats, and a heaping teaspoon of salt. The easiest way to do this is in a 2-cup measuring cup; the oats should fill to roughly the top of the cup (which is a bit above 2 cups).
  2. Boil 2.5 cups water. When it reaches a rolling boil, dump the dry ingredients you just combined into the water. Stir with a whisk for about 15 seconds, turning the heat off after about 5 seconds. You don't have to worry about mixing the dry ingredients BEFORE you put them in the water.
  3. Dump the mixture into the mixer bowl (or any bowl of the proper size, if you are mixing it by hand).
  4. Sprinkle a light teaspoon (that is, about 2/3 of a teaspoon) of sugar over the top. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, until the surface hardens somewhat, whatever that means...just wait 2 minutes.
  5. Add 1/2 cup cold water, trying to avoid breaking the surface of the mixture (too much). One way to do this is to pour it over the back of a spoon (the same spoon you used to add the sugar works well). The goal is that the water is sitting on top of the goop below.
  6. Gently distribute about 1.5 teaspoons (or one packet) of yeast over the surface of the water. It will start to foment and bubble, which is fine.
  7. Let the resulting heksenketel sit there for 40 minutes. Possibly, if you are going to later attempt to feed this to someone under the age of 12, you may want to keep them away from the kitchen, since it doesn't look particularly botulism-free at this point.
  8. Put the bowl on the mixer with the dough hook on (if your kids like to play pirate dress up, you may have to extricate the dough hook from its spot on the end of Captain Hook's arm). Add 1.5 cups whole wheat flour and 1.5 cups white flour.
  9. Stir for about 5 minutes on the lowest speed (which is marked "stir" on our KitchenAid, but is in the spot where "1" should be).
  10. Alternate adding half cups of white and wheat flour and mixing (or stirring if by hand) for a couple of minutes. Remember to only mix on the lowest setting, or the flour will spray out (it may do this anyway). Keep doing this until (in my father's words) "it has acquired the characteristics of a thing, not a mass." If that is hard to interpret, add 1.5 cups total of extra flour. But this really does depend on the humidity and whatnot. A bread dough with the right amount of flour in it will not be shiny, the surface won't be sticky, and it won't have little wavecaps. It should retain the shape of a finger poke for a while.
  11. At some point here, you want to preheat your oven to 150 degrees, then turn it off.
  12. You also want to butter the bread pan. A standard bread pan will do, we have one from Barbados which is a bit longer and skinnier than normal. The fact that it's from Barbados is not particularly germane to the discussion at hand, but my father, ever on the lookout for such things, happened to spot it in a store there.
  13. When the dough has the right amount of flour, you can give it a couple of minutes on the next higher speed setting ("2" on our mixer). Another attribute of the dough when it is ready is that it starts to climb out of the bowl on its own (it won't make it, but it's fun to watch; the metal circle on the top of the dough hook will eventually decapitate any 'scapers).
  14. When the dough is done mixing, turn it out onto a lightly floured board. You can use a bit of extra flour as a mild abrasive to separate any recalcitrant dough from the bowl.
  15. Knead it just a bit. 30 seconds is fine if you have the right amount of flour, but if you have to add flour then you will need to knead longer to mix in the new flour.
  16. Shape it to fit the pan. You can knead it into a ball and roll it like when you make a snake out of Play-Doh, or whatever technique works for you. Try to make it an even thickness along the whole length. If there is a seam in the dough from kneading, put that on the bottom.
  17. Place the dough in the pan and butter the top.
  18. Put a thin towel on the top and stick it in the oven which has been preheated but then turned off (if you have forgotten to turn the oven off, then it's fine to turn it off now). Let it rise for one hour.
  19. After an hour, set the oven to 400 and bake for an hour. You can let the bread sit in the oven while it heats up.
  20. When it is done baking, take it out of the pan and put it on a cooling rack right away.
  21. Ideally it will cool for an hour, but you can slice it earlier if you want, or if this is your second time baking it and you can't wait.

That's it. It looks complicated compared to your basic flour/salt/water/yeast bread, but it's really pretty easy once you have the ingredients assembled. Don't worry too much about the exact mix of ingredients, it will taste good no matter what. The amount of flour is a bit of trial and error; if the bread is too dry, then you put in too much flour.

Enjoy, and if you make one, please let me know!

Posted by AdamBa at November 20, 2007 09:22 PM

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Several comments. First, I have been making one or another variation of this for 30 years, but used the mixer for only about 4. But an ordinary plastic spoon will not do. I have a very heavyweight Danish spoon that I used to use for the purpose. Second, when available, I add about 1/3 cup of ground (in a coffee grinder) flax seed. It is said to be good for you, but only when ground. Third it is important to understand that the purpose of the 40 minute waiting time is to let the mixture cool so as not to kill the yeast. AT the same time, the yeast is proving. If your kitchen is unusually cool, you can shade that to 30 minutes. If it is in the middle of the summer, I would let it cool for an hour. I have not tried putting it in the fridge, but I see no reason that wouldn't work. I have let it go for a couple hours with no ill effects. If you cannot find the Red River, then I wouls suggest Wheatena and flax seed. (But Red River is much better as a cooked breakfast cereal than Wheatena.)

I usually collect the dry ingredients and then start the 2.5 cups of water to boil. In the time it takes, you can mix the dry ingredients in the 2 cup measure. It is a bit like assembling a compost heap. The whole process takes about 3.25 hours, but can be speeded up. I would wait at least a half hour to try to slice it. And get a good strong serrated bread knife.

Posted by: Marble Chair at November 21, 2007 08:58 AM

There is something missing in step 19. Before "set the oven to 400", you should insert the phrase "remove the towel, then". Of course, if you forget it at this stage, there is always the alternative: "Remove towel when you smell it starting to singe."

Posted by: Mrs. Chair at November 21, 2007 03:20 PM