The Amish love their wheat. Their lives are rooted to the grain’s cycle: the color of the emerald-green grass pushing up then staying dormant while every other grass has turned brown. In rural communities, the journey from wheat field to grain elevator to mill can be a quick turnaround—a good thing for those whose dinner table revolve around homemade bread.
As part of my new collection of food literature (publication date to come) on the ethnic and traditional loaves across the country, this story on Elizabeth Coblentz, an Amish homemaker, won’t have the ever-quickening change of pace like some of the other profiles in One Baker, One Bread. Instead, it’s symbolic of a sturdy loaf that connects the Amish to their past.
Before the dark curtain of night lifted from the northeastern Indiana pastureland, Elizabeth Coblentz, an Old Order Amish housewife, sat in the warm circle of light from her kerosene lamp and wrote about her life, first for an Amish newspaper called “The Budget,” and later for a weekly syndicated column which appeared in about 100 papers. She offered recipes for hearty, unusual dishes, but also a peek into the daily-ness of life: pumping water from a hand pump installed in a closet off the kitchen, butchering hogs, eating mustard sandwiches, sewing clothes, and spending days canning sauerkraut. She became an unlikely heroine known to thousands of readers as “The Amish Cook.”
Without a doubt, the Amish ignite our curiosity. If we’re not marveling at their dress, their hairstyles, or grappling with their unusual practices, we are admiring them. What would it be like to live without constant interruptions? Without the stress of the rat race? The intrusions of modern technology?
Eight children, thirty grandchildren, weddings, funerals, trips to town by a horse-drawn buggy, barn raisings, foot-washings. Although she lived in the late 20th century, she had both feet firmly planted in the 19th century. She lived in a house with no running water, kept food cold in an outdoor icehouse, and, like other Old Order Amish who are completely disconnected from all public utilities, she had no electricity, phone, fax, email, or television. She once told an interviewer that she didn’t need television. The children were her television. They entertained her.
It could’ve been a portrait of a 19th century Swiss village. But it was the late 20th century. In America. She introduced readers to a vanishing way of life and they loved her. When her husband Ben, of 42 years, died, she received over 2,000 condolence cards.
Home bread bakers like Coblentz took the words our daily bread very seriously. When she assembled the nine loaves of bread for the week in the kitchen of her two-story farmhouse, and on the very same land that Swiss settlers had tilled a century ago, she was repeating a ritual her Swiss mother taught her. Though it may sound like over-the-back-fence-chatter, folksy, or unpolished, Elizabeth Coblentz’s loaf of choice was white bread. Recipe below...
While good old-fashioned white bread doesn’t attract today’s health-conscious who seek alternatives to white flour and even wheat, this recipe for Amish White Bread also won’t scare anyone away with new ingredients or lingo.
This recipe is adapted from The Amish Cook: Recollections and Recipes from an Old Order Amish Family by Elizabeth Coblentz with Kevin Williams (Ten Speed Press, 2002)
If home-baked bread is sealed in plastic bags while it is still warm, Coblentz noted, it will stay fresh longer.
1 (1/4 ounce) package active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
2 cups warm whole milk
1 heaping tablespoon lard or shortening
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
7-8 cups all-purpose flour
1. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in water.
2. In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine lard, sugar, salt, and warm milk.
3. Into the large mixing bowl, add the yeast and enough flour to make a soft, elastic dough that doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl.
4. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let rise until double (1-1/4 to 3 hours) in a warm draft-free place.
5. Punch the dough down and divide into 2 balls; form 2 loaves, put each one in a greased loaf pan. Cover and let rise until double, about 45 to 60 minutes.
6. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 45 minutes. When the bread is done, it will sound hollow if you tap on it.
7. If you want, after removing the bread from the oven, brush the top with butter or margarine. This will make for a softer crust.
Peggy Wolff’s stories on what, where, and with whom people eat have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Tribune's SUNDAY Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, and more. Her new book, Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie, a compilation of food writers on Midwestern Food, just won ForeWord's IndieFab 2013 Anthology of the Year.