Homemade Food Gifts are a Treat to Give and Receive
Not so many years ago, it was customary to bring a gift of food when paying a visit to a neighbor or sharing holiday joy. There’s something extra-special about a homemade food gift, especially during the busy holidays. And yeast breads give that added special touch. They need not be daunting with a bit of practice. We hope this will inspire you to revive the art and custom of gifts from the kitchen. There’s a wonderful satisfaction knowing that you made it yourself.
From kneading the silky dough to watching it rise before your eyes, making yeast breads can be a satisfying experience for you and your friends. And for those of us in the Midwest, if we can add a bit of Illinois to the process, all the better.
Hodgson Mill, in Effingham, uses Illinois wheat in its stone-ground blends. The mill was started by Alva Hodgson, a pioneering Missouri millwright, whose name later became synonymous with Effingham’s water-driven grain mill. He started in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks in 1837. A second mill, built in 1861, burned down as Missouri passed through the chaos of the Civil War. By 1882, Hodgson made his way to Effingham and founded the stone-ground mill pictured in the company’s logo and still standing today. He and his brother, George, joined forces and eventually incorporated new machinery into the business.
Though Hodgson Mill expanded and modernized its milling facilities again in 1976 to keep pace with demand, the company still uses the same process Alva developed (and the image of the mill) to promote healthy whole-grain products and packaged mixes for home bakers.
“I can’t say that it’s strictly Illinois wheat,” says Perry Propst, creative arts manager for the company. “But we do utilize Illinois wheat. Everything we sell is whole grain – along with a lot of flax, a lot of gluten-free and everything healthy.”
The company uses the stone-ground process, which keeps the grains from being crushed, preserving more of the healthy germ, bran and endosperm. The grains flow gently down into the top of the mill and, in one simple operation, are ground between two stones into whole-grain flours and cornmeals. Stonemilling also gives the flour a distinct texture that makes baked products more interesting, with greater eye and taste appeal.
And lately, they’ve seen an upswing in business.
“When the economy started turning bad, people started doing more baking, not going to restaurants. And we saw an increase in business,” says Propst.
One of the company’s biggest sellers is graham flour, also known as stone-ground whole wheat. Hodgson Mill recently redesigned the packaging to move the graham reference to the back, however.
“People were getting confused, thinking graham flour was just for graham crackers,” Propst says. “Stone grinding is specifically for graham flour. We pride ourselves on being stone-ground.”
We’ve developed a few recipes using stone-ground (or graham, if you promise not to just think of s’mores) flour to give as food gifts during the holidays. Mary’s Dark Bread is a family treasure from my sister-in-law, Mary, and the Sunburst Coffee Cake is one I’ve given as a gift many times, after learning the technique in a baking class. There’s also an easy recipe for Cinnamon-Cranberry Granola that makes a great breakfast or gift for a friend.
Tips for Successful Bread Making
• Use a very large bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon or a heavy-duty mixer.
•Add flour in small amounts, about half cup at a time. Flour should not be sifted.
• Butter gives the best flavor, but other fat can be used.
• Grease baking pans with unsalted fats (not butter), because salt will cause browning.
• Bread should be baked near the center of oven for even heat distribution.
• Bread is done when the loaf begins to shrink from the sides of the pan. A thermometer through the bottom side will register 190 degrees.
• Immediately after baking, remove breads from pans and allow them to cool on racks, away from drafts.
• If a tender crust is desired, brush tops of loaves with melted butter, either before or after baking.
• Yeast is a living plant that makes breads and rolls rise. Cold temperatures retard the growth of yeast. Warm temperatures stimulate its growth. Provide a warm environment for bread dough to rise. Warm the bowl with water before mixing dough.
• Check expiration dates on yeast. If it’s close to the date, proof the yeast by dissolving it in a half cup warm water and stirring in 1 teaspoon sugar. Let stand five minutes. If yeast is active, bubbles will appear on the surface as the mixture swells.
• To help dough rise, boil a cup of water in the microwave to create a moist environment. Then, leaving the microwave off, put the dough to rise in the proof box with the cup of water moved to the side.
• All breads freeze successfully. Some, like French breads, do not keep well unless frozen. When cooled, wrap bread airtight, pressing air from package. Label and date. When thawing, leave in the packaging to thaw.