Rumor has it that I come from a line of strong women; women who went out and got what they wanted and took no prisoners. While I suspect this is true for some of the women in my family, I know it is true of my Great-Grandma, Lena.
My Great-Grandma was born in a small village in Finland. As she grew up, she took a fancy to a young man in the village – Matti. At about the age of 20, Matti left the village and went to America, clearing immigration at Ellis Island. My Great-Grandma followed, months later, on the RMS Lusitania. She was not engaged to Matti, and indeed, it’s questionable whether he even knew she existed.
Having no money, my Great-Grandma came over to America as an indentured servant. In exchange for room, board and passage to America, she had to work for a family for a year in their home. She worked in the kitchen and allegedly called the mistress of the house some not so flattering terms in Finnish under her breath, but she always kept her eye on the ball, the ball in this case, being Matti. When her term of servitude was up, she found him, and while the rest of the story hasn’t been passed down coherently, the end result is they got married and had three children, one of which was my Grandma Eileen (her name was originally Aili, but her kindergarten teacher couldn’t pronounce it and so changed her name on the school records to Eileen – it stuck – can you imagine that happening today?). My Great-Grandparents at some point moved to Seattle and settled in Ballard, a neighborhood that at the time was populated primarily with Scandinavian immigrants.
When I was young, I spent several weeks over the summers with my Grandma at my Great-Grandma’s in Ballard. My Great-Grandma’s English was limited to what she picked up on TV commercials and General Hospital, but my Grandma spoke Finnish and could translate and my Great-Grandma spoke enough English for us to play pinnacle (rumor has it I cheated) and to bake.
When I think of my Great-Grandma, it is the food, that I remember most. The pasties (ground meat, onions and seasoning baked into a pie), the “biscuit” (a sweet, braided bread that had no relation to Southern biscuits), the pannu kakku (a baked, almost custardy pancake casserole type dish that you eat with maple syrup), the baby potatoes we would dig out of the backyard and eat raw with just a little salt, and most of all, the bread.
At least once every time I visited, my Great-Grandma and I would wake up early and bake bread. I loved the warm oven, the kneading of the dough, and the smell of the bread rising and baking (I also loved the raw dough and routinely got scolded for eating bits while I kneaded).
Although, neither my Great-Grandma nor my Grandma is still alive today, I remember them and their limitless love for me, every time I make Great-Grandma’s bread, which these days is about once a month. There’s nothing quite like homemade bread out of the oven – once you make your own it’s really hard to go back to store bought. It’s an investment of time, but try it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed. After all, it really is an expression of love, for yourself and your family.
Great-Grandma Lena’s Bread
- Clean off a large cutting board or a large patch of counter-space.
- Clean your hands and nails.
- Add 4 ½ cups of lukewarm water to a large warm bowl (I boil 2 cups to make sure the water is warm enough).
- Add one packet of yeast to the water, stir and let dissolve (about 5 minutes).
- Add 5 TBSP sugar to yeast and water.
- Add 2 TBSP salt to the yeast, sugar and water.
- Stir in 2 ½ cups of whole wheat flour to the water mixture.
- Stir in 6 cups of white flour.
- Measure out ¼ cup of vegetable oil, and add almost all of it to the mix (leave enough to thinly coat the bottom of the pan).
- Continue to add more white flour until the mix is doughy but not too sticky – about 2 ½ cups. Start kneading the dough in the bowl as you add this flour.
- Flour your work area to prevent sticking and knead the dough on the work area for a few minutes until the stickiness is pretty much eliminated.
- Place the remaining vegetable oil in the bowl, add the dough and flip the dough to coat both sides with oil. Cover with a tea towel and set aside in the oven (if it’s cold out, warm the oven at the beginning of the process and then turn it off about 5 minutes before you put the bread in).
- Let rise until the dough doubles (in So. California this took 1 hour, in Seattle it takes 1 ½ hours).
- Once the dough has doubled, separate it into 3 parts. Knead each part (cover the other 2) until it doesn’t squeak. You can have great fun with this by grabbing the dough at 2 ends and slapping it against the work surface, before kneading it again. Place each of the 3 parts of dough into a lightly greased loaf or round pan.
- Cover all 3 pans with tea towels and put them back in the oven to rise. Let rise until the dough doubles (1–1 ½ hours).
- Once the dough has doubled, pull the pans out of the oven and heat the oven to 400°. Fork the top of the dough. Bake for 1 hour.
- After 1 hour, when the tops are brown, remove the bread from the oven and the pans, place on a wire rack for cooling and butter the tops of the loaves.
- Let cool, eat and enjoy.
You can freeze (wrap in freezer paper and a plastic bag) or refrigerate 1 or 2 of the loaves. In our house, we put 1 loaf in the refrigerator and eat the other 2 before refrigeration is needed (and yes, there are only 2 of us).