*Correction* In an earlier version of this post, I labeled this bread “taloa.” My attentive readers, who are much more knowledgeable than I am, brought to my attention that taloa is a completely different type of bread, more of a Basque corn tortilla than a loaf of bread. I apologize for the error, and I encourage anyone who has a recipe for taloa to send it my way so I can test it out.
An adorable old Basque sheepherder from Arizona explained to me in detail over breakfast at Centro Basco a few weeks ago how to make sheepherder’s bread.
I didn’t take any notes, as a lot of what he said went way over my head and I figured my readers weren’t actually going to dig a hole in the ground to bake their bread like the sheepherders would. Maybe some of you are that diehard, but I’m definitely not.
So I took the easy route and scoured the internet for Basque sheepherder’s bread recipes. I decided to try Buber’s recipe, because it seemed simple enough (only seven ingredients!) and because Buber is the boss of everything.
For the sake of proper attribution, everything in bold comes from Buber’s page directly. The recipe goes as follows:
3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb) butter or margarine
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp salt
2 pkg active dry yeast
9 to 9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar, and salt. Stir until butter has melted; let cool to about 110 degrees.
This was fun, because I’d never melted butter with hot water before. Those sheepherders were some resourceful dudes!
Stir in yeast, cover, and set in a warm place until bubbly (about 15 minutes).
For some hella Basque style points, cover the bowl with some Basque linen.
Beat in about 5 cups of the flour to make a thick batter. Stir in enough of the remaining flour (about 3 1/2 cups) to make a stiff dough.
Turn dough out onto a floured board; knead until smooth and satiny (10 to 20 minutes), adding flour as needed to prevent sticking.
Now this is where you get really tired. The first ten minutes of kneading was fine. Fun, even. But the dough got harder and harder as time went on, requiring more effort on my part. Eventually I got hella flushed like I had just gone through some vigorous Sun Salutations. I started whining at the timer, pleading for the seconds to tick by faster.
In the end, I came out with this bad boy:
Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 1/2 hours).
Finally, you get a break! And after the rest, you end up with this cool-looking thing:
Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air; shape into a smooth ball.
The punching part was fun. Going back to knead some more, not so much.
With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast-iron or cast-aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and underside of lid with salad oil.
Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid.
My dough didn’t end up very “satiny,” but it would have to do.
Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch (about 1 hour — watch closely).
It took longer than one hour (notice how it’s nighttime outside), but it actually did pop through the lid eventually.
Bake, covered with lid, in a preheated 375 degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes or until loaf is golden brown.
Remove from oven and turn out onto a rack to cool (you’ll need a helper). Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes 1 very large loaf.
Excuse me. “Very large loaf” is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I had no idea going into this (as I’d never actually seen taloa before) that the bread would take up the entire Dutch oven.
I guess it makes sense that a sheepherder would want to make lots of bread at once, since it takes quite a bit of time and effort to put this whole shebang together. But WOWZA.
In terms of taste, let’s just say that it’s a hearty, earthy kind of bread. It’s got a unique flavor that isn’t altogether unpleasant when eaten plain, but the bread was a million times better toasted with a little butter and jam. Oh my God. Then it was a knock out.
I had to freeze half of the loaf, but I’ve used the other half to eat toasted with fried eggs and to use as French toast for breakfast. In both cases, the sheepherder’s bread was a total hit.
If you’re willing to put in the time and muscle power this recipe requires, I think it’s definitely worth giving it a try. I wouldn’t bake it on a regular basis, but if you’ve got a lot of hungry people to feed, this could be the bread for you.
You can also check out these other recipes for Basque sheepherder’s bread to compare:
NPR has a recipe from a little cookbook called From the Sheepcamp to the Kitchen: Volume II.
Ben Plaza from Ontario, Oregon shares his recipe through the Oregon Historical Society.
Cooks.com offers one.
And Euskal Kazeta shares a similar recipe.
If you give it a try, let me know how it turns out!