Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Sheep and Bread

Historically, the New World, or North America, was explored and “conquered”, for lack of a better word, by the countries of Europe.  While the English primarily settled within the 13 original colonies, French and Spanish explorers traveled the fringes of both the United States and Canada.  Moving inland became justified with the finding of precious minerals (gold, silver, copper); fur trapping for animal pelts to keep human bodies warm in winter and, of course, land grabbing.

With the influx of these foreigners came food items and recipes.  American cuisine essentially began as a mixture of English, French, Spanish; increasing as more countries forth wars in North America.  The Hessians were approximately 30,000 German troops, hired by the British, to help fight during the American Revolution. They were principally from the German state of Hesse-Cassel, and with them came their cultural background.  It is known that the Spanish came through San Juan County, part of the development of the Old Spanish Trail from Mexico to California.

In the 1900s, Basque immigrants traveled to the mountain regions of California, Idaho, Montana and Utah.  Descended from the first Romans who invaded the areas of Spain and France, they have their own culture, language and distinct genetic background.  The Basque are extremely family oriented, so while sheepherding was a major component of life, it was a lonely existence.  The herders spent more time with their flock, than with family.  Living in small shelters and cooking for themselves was a basic necessity for their way of life. 

“Tending their flocks in the remote Western rangelands, Basque sheepmen had to cook for themselves, and they had to make do with a minimum of portable cooking equipment.   A Dutch oven became essential for cooking hearty soups and stews — and even for baking bread. They buried the pot in a pit full of hot embers.  During the winter months, herders would live in sheep wagons, which contained a stove and an oven. They baked their own bread in a Dutch oven, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires, with a tight-fitting lid and a bale handle. Today the tradition continues in homes across the world recreating this wonderful bread in modern ovens. ” ~~Sunset Magazine, June 1976~~

Now, in the history of bread baking, comes that age old question, “Which came first…?”  The Native American culture and traditions have their own bread creation styles.  Pueblo bread (San Juan Record, April 5, 2016), bread products made by ancestral Native Americans used corn flour.  The introduction of wheat flour, and eventually more processed flours, came from the exploring Europeans.  So, when it came to baking techniques, recipes and what the finished bread loaves looked like; who influenced who?  I asked a few Navajo ladies about the difference between Pueblo and Sheepherder breads, and the answer was simple…sugar.  The recipes are essentially the same, except Sheepherder bread contains sugar which gives a sweeter flavor, and browner coloring.

Sheepherder Bread baked Pueblo Bread style.
Not owning a cast iron Dutch oven (bowing head in shame), one recipe I came upon stated that a modern day, stainless steel/aluminum Dutch oven would do the trick.  Oh yes it did, I was totally tricked and fooled.  My first attempt with the recipe was a disaster of sorts.  Oh, it rose up beautifully as it baked, a lovely golden brown and yeasty aroma.  Tapping on the crispy crust though, something did not sound correct; it should have had a more hollow tone.  Cutting into the huge, round loaf and to my dismay, the dough inside was mostly gooey and raw.  I put it into the oven for 20 minutes longer, but the only accomplishment was a dark brown coloring and harder crust.

First Attempt
2nd Rising in Stainless Steel Dutch Oven

After Baking

Sheepherder Bread - Dutch Oven style

Failed First Attempt, still raw dough inside.
I am telling you of my failed first attempt to prove a point, do not quit.  The secret of life is to learn something new on a daily basis.  I learned that a baking technique, hundreds of years old, cannot be simply cheated on.  Then it hit me, wait, the Puebloans did not have cast iron Dutch ovens, how did they do it!?!  I went back to the basic recipe for Pueblo Bread (remember, it is almost exactly like Sheepherder Bread), added the sugar, but divided the first rise of dough into fourths.  Giving a second rise in round, oiled cake pans, I baked them according to temperature and time instructions. 

Second Attempt
Mound of Dough

First Rising in Greased Bowl

Knead, Divide into 4 Pans

2nd Rising, Cut X into top.

Sheepherder Bread, baked Pueblo Bread style....Perfect!

What was the result?  Four beautifully browned, round loaves of Sheepherder Bread; crispy crust, light and tender inside, mild sweetness that did not interfere with any ingredients placed upon the bread.  We indulged in grilled cheese sandwiches and French toast; or simply warmed slices smeared with butter and/or jam.  Not quitting, putting thought and experience to the test, success!

French Toast

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

With the recipe for Sheepherder Bread, there will be two sets of baking instructions.  The first set will be the traditional baking technique using a cast iron Dutch oven.  The second set will be as if making Pueblo style bread.  If you have a cast iron Dutch oven, I suggest making the bread both ways, and see which is preferred.

Sheepherder Bread


3 cups very hot water
1/2 cup shortening
1⁄2 cup sugar
2 and 1⁄2 tsp. salt
4 and 1⁄2 tsp. dry yeast
9 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
Vegetable or olive oil

For Cast Iron Dutch Oven

In a bowl, combine water, shortening, sugar and salt.  Stir until shortening melts and cool to 110 to 115 degrees. Stir in yeast, cover and set in warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes.

Add 5 cups flour and beat to form thick batter. Stir in enough of remaining flour (about 3 and 1/2 cups) to form stiff dough. Turn out on floured board and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes), adding flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Turn dough into greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 1 and 1/2 hours. Punch down and knead to form smooth ball, about 3-4 turns.

Grease inside of Dutch oven and inside of lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid to let rise for the third time. Let rise in warm place until dough pushes up lid about 1/2 inch (watch closely).

Bake covered with lid in 375 degree oven for 12 minutes, carefully remove lid and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, or until loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from oven and turn out on rack to cool.

Makes 1 loaf.

For Individual Round Pans

Same steps as Dutch oven method, except after first rising and kneading, cut dough into 4 sections.  Shape into round balls and place inside round cake pans that have been greased with oil.  Cover and let rise for 1 and ½ hours.

Preheat oven to 400F, bake for 45-50 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.  Remove from oven and place loaves on rack to cool.

Makes 4 loaves.

Mary Cokenour

No comments:

Post a Comment