This simple recipe, intended to provide scaffolding for improvisation and context for peaceful awareness, was created by Edward Espe Brown, then a monk-in-training at the tranquil northern California Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. It became a gateway bread experience for thousands, if not millions of newly-awakened home bakers in the 1970s. Espe continues to advocate for the value of intuition, reverence, and sense-intelligence in the kitchen, and to honor process as well as product, a key tenet of the counterculture cuisine of the 1960s.
As the politicos of the New Left took center stage in the struggle for social transformation in the late 1960s (developing a food aesthetic of their own, popularized by counterculture food writers like the Liberation News Service’s Ita Jones), many of the counterculture’s spiritual seekers moved out of the cities and into the country, looking for truth and transcendence. The intentionality and loving care Espe emphasizes in The Tassajara Bread Book were core values of the spiritual facet of the counterculture, as was the psychedelic-inspired spirit of adventurous experimentation and reverence for the unmediated, the simple, and the unrefined that would persist to perfuse the high-end urban foodie culture of 1970s and 1980s.
Nothing embodies the aesthetics of the commune counterculture as perfectly as their bread does. Rough, brown, heavy, and irregular, real bread nourished body and soul—the antithesis of the fast, processed, and convenience foods that, in counterculture terms, delivered a quick fix and a slow death. As revolutionary as the earthy loaves themselves were the supportive, unpretentious cookbooks created by various cooperatives, often illustrated with the kind of charming and beautifully unprofessional-looking line drawings that reached a wide mainstream audience in Mollie Katzen’s 1977 mega-bestseller, the Moosewood Cookbook, written from her experience with the Moosewood restaurant collective in upstate New York.
The Tassajara Bread Book teaches both the process of breadmaking and a warm, gentle perspective on daily experience. Espe encourages the patient gaining of breadmaking wisdom, rather than instant, foolproof results. There are no mistakes, he says, only experience that teaches. As leftist food columnist mother bird, whose column Bread Bakin’: A Garden of Kneadin’ ran in the underground periodical Northwest Passage wrote: “Don’t be discouraged by a few bricks, or even a lot of bricks—they’re all building blocks.*” Counterculture bakers encourage us to abandon expectations, and discover where learning leads.
Tassajara Yeasted Bread Using Whole Milk
Brown, Edward Espe. The Tassajara Bread Book. Boulder, Shambala, 1970. Original formatting retained.
A slightly superior loaf.
¼ c warm water
1 T dry yeast
2 ½ c scalded milk (cool to 100°)
6 T honey or molasses (¼ – ½ c)
¼ c oil
3 ½–4 c whole wheat flour or variation
2 T salt
3 ½ – 4 c whole wheat flour or variation
To make the SPONGE:
Scald milk by heating to just below the boiling point. Set in cold water for quick cooling. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sweetening and oil to cooling milk, when cooled to 100° (not hot, not cold on wrist) mix in dissolved yeast and stir in whole wheat flour until thick, pasty batter is formed. Beat well with spoon (100 times), until the batter is very smooth. Do this at the surface of the dough, ducking the spoon under the surface, bringing it up above the surface pulling up the batter in a circular motion. This dough will become stretchier as you do this and much air will be incorporated. Cover bowl with a damp towel and let rise in a warmish place (about 85° – 100°). In summer almost any place might do. Otherwise on top of the stove over pilot light, shelf above hot water heater, in oven which has a pilot light, or in oven which has been on low heat (250° – 300°) for five to ten minutes. Whichever. If it’s in a cooler place (70° – 85°) it’ll just rise more slowly. If it’s frozen it won’t rise at all but will rise when it’s unfrozen. Let it RISE for an hour or 45 or 70 minutes.
Espe writes: The Sponge Method, omitted in most bread recipes, is advantageous in many ways. The yeast gets started easily in the absence of salt, which inhibits its functioning, and in the presence of plenty of oxygen. Gluten is formed when the sponges stretches in rising, which would otherwise be the product of your labor in kneading. This added elasticity makes the remaining ingredients more easily incorporated and kneading more easily accomplished.
From here on out, DO NOT STIR. Do not cut through the dough. Keep it in one piece as much as possible Each cut and tear will lessen the elasticity and strength of the dough.
Sprinkle and fold in SALT. Stir around side of bowl and fold over toward center. Turn bowl toward you with left hand and repeat folding until salt is incorporated.
Sprinkle FLOUR on the surface of dough about a cup at a time. Fold wet mixture from the sides of bowl on top of dry ingredients. Turn the bowl ¼ turn between folds. When flour is moistened by the dough, add some more flour. Continue folding. Dough will become very thick and heavy, but don’t be intimidated.
Continue folding in flour until dough comes away from (does not stick to) sides and bottom of bowl, sitting up in bowl in a big lump. The dough is ready for kneading when it can be turned out of the bowl in pretty much of a piece, except for a few remaining scraps. Take time to scrape the bowl out carefully, and lay scraping on top of dough on floured board. It is not necessary to wash the bread bowl at this point, simply oil it lightly.
The kneading surface, board, or table should be at a height on which your hands rest comfortably when you are standing straight (mid-thigh). Keep the surface floured sufficiently to prevent the dough from sticking during kneading. The purpose of kneading is to get the dough well-mixed, of a smooth, even texture, and to further develop the elasticity of the dough.
Beginning with a lump of dough not entirely of a piece, somewhat ragged and limply-lying, commence kneading.
Flour your hands.
Picking up the far edge of dough, FOLD dough IN HALF toward you, far side over near side, so that the two edges are approximately lined up evenly.
Place your hands on NEAR SIDE of dough so that the top of your palms (just below the fingers) are at the top front of the dough.
PUSH DOWN AND FORWARD, centering and pushing through the heels of the hands more and more as the push continues. Relax your fingers at the end of the push. Rock forward with your whole body rather than simply pushing with your arms. Apply steady, even pressure, allowing the dough to give way at its own pace. The dough will roll forward with the seam on top, and your hands will end up about 2/3 of the way toward to far side of the dough. Removing your hands, see that the top fold has been joined to the bottom fold where the heels of the hands were pressing.
TURN the dough ¼ turn (clockwise is usually easier for right-handed persons). Fold in half towards you as before and rock forward, pushing as before.
TURN, FOLD, PUSH. Rock forward, Twist and fold as you rock back. Rock forward. Little by little you will develop some rhythm. Push firmly, yet gently, so you stretch but do not tear the dough.
Add FLOUR to board or sprinkle on top of dough as necessary to keep the dough from sticking to the board or hands. As you knead, the dough will begin stiffening up, holding its shape rather than sagging; it will become more and more elastic, so that it will tend to stretch rather than tear. It will stick to hands and board less and less until no flour is necessary to prevent sticking. The surface will be smooth and somewhat shiny.
Before you finish kneading, SCRAPE THE BREAD BOARD and rub dough off hands and incorporate these scraps into the dough.
Place the dough in the OILED BREAD BOWL, smooth side down, and then turn it over so the creases are on the bottom. Oiled surface will keep a crust from forming on the dough.
COVER the dough with a DAMP TOWEL and set it in a warm place.
Let dough RISE 50 – 60 minutes, until nearly doubled in size.
“PUNCH DOWN” by pushing fist into dough, as far as the hand will go, steadily and firmly. Do this maybe 25 or 30 times all over the dough. It will not punch down as small as it was before rising. Cover.
Let RISE 40 – 50 minutes, until nearly doubled in size. If you are short for time, the second rising may be omitted. The loaves will be slightly heavier.
Start the oven pre-heating. Turn dough onto board. If the dough is of proper consistency moisture-wise, no flour will be necessary on the board. If too wet it will stick to the board. Use flour as necessary. If too dry the folds will not seal tougher easily.
Shape into BALL by folding dough to center all the way around as in kneading without the pushing. Turn smooth side up, and tuck in dough all the way around.
Cut in TWO EVEN PIECES.
Shape into BALLS again and let sit five minutes.
KNEAD DOUGH with right hand. Turn and fold dough with left hand. Do this about five or six times until dough is compact. This gives the loaf added “spring”, similar to winding a clock. After the final push, turn the dough ¼ turn and, beginning at near edge,
ROLL up the dough into a LOG-SHAPE. With seam on the bottom, flatten out top with finger-tips. Square off sides and ends. Turn it over and pinch seams together all the way along it.
Have BREAD PANS in a stack. Put some oil in top one and turn it over, letting it drain into the next one. (Or just spray them – Ed.) Place loaf in oiled pan with seam up. Dough can fill pan one-half to two-thirds full. A 5 ¼ x 9 ¼ pan will take 2 ¼ –2 ½ pound yeasted loaves. A 4 ½ x 8 ½ will take 1 ¾ — 2-pound yeasted loaves.
FLATTEN dough out with backs of fingers. Turn loaf over so seam is on the bottom. Press again into shape of pan with backs of fingers.
COVER. Let rise 15-25 minutes, from finish of last loaf, depending partly on how long you take to make the loaves and partly on how fast the dough is rising.
Center of loaf will be up level with the top of pan by this time.
Cut the top with SLITS ½ inch deep to allow steam to escape. For golden brown, shiny surface,
Brush SURFACE of loaf with EGG WASH: one egg beaten with ¼ to ½ cup water or milk.
Sprinkle with SESAME SEED or POPPY SEED, if you wish.
BAKE at 350° for 50-70 minutes (Smaller loaves will bake faster.) To see if done: top is shiny golden brown. The sides and bottoms should likewise be golden brown. Loaf will resound with deep hollow thump when tapped with finger.
REMOVE from pans immediately.
For clean-cut slices, LET COOL one hour or more before cutting.
*Quoted in Warren’s Belasco’s Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988. Pantheon, New York, 1989