I’ve known Nelson my entire life. He and his wife Bernie were friends of my parents and I have been part of my social landscape from the day I was born. Although my siblings were fond of them, I think I especially liked, even loved, them and the liking was mutual.
Last Friday Nelson died from cancer. He was pretty sick and at 82 had led a long and useful life and, I’m fairly sure, a generally happy life: There were too many smile lines in his face for him to have spent much time unhappy. I’ll miss him just as I’ll miss Bernie when her time comes. But life goes on and part of life is celebrating those who’ve died, so tomorrow I’ll be going to a memorial service for Nelson.
Here in the South many of us celebrate deaths by cooking and eating. The custom isn’t universal, but it is common. People bring bean casseroles, chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese, and pots of greens. They fry chicken and make biscuits and mold jello salads. They bake brownies and cookies and cakes and pies. There’s lots of sweet tea and coffee to wash the food down.
Folding tables are set up and paper plates and napkins and plastic forks and knives and spoons are laid out and the tables are loaded down with everything that is good and wholesome and gives us comfort.
People would stand about in couples and small groups, sometimes speaking soberly and sometimes laughing and joking and sometimes crying. Kids would run about under foot sneaking cookies and glad the service was over
These days, sadly, the fried chicken is too often the Colonel’s and potato chips replace the potato salad. The cookies come in a plastic package and cokes are more common than tea.
But the core of the event remains – a gathering of friends and family to celebrate someone’s past life and our own life with that most fundamental, elemental, and ancient of human social events. We gather to break bread.
So I made rolls.
Whole Wheat Beer Bread
2 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp sugar
12 oz warm beer
2 1/4 c whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c bread flour — separated
1 1/2 tbsp butter — melted
2 tsp salt
1 ea egg
1 tbsp water
Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer, thoroughly combine yeast, whole wheat flour, 1 1/4 cup bread flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and sugar. Add butter to warm beer and, with mixer running, pour beer into dry ingredients. As the dough forms swap paddle attachment for dough hook.
Knead for six minutes at medium speed. The dough should be slightly sticky but should clear the bowl. Add additional flour if needed. Dump dough onto a floured board and knead another minute or two until dough is fairly smooth (it won’t be as smooth as a pure white bread) and resilient. Allow to rest 5 to 10 minutes.
Clean and dry mixing bowl and spray with a nonstick spray. Shape dough into a ball and place seam-side down in bowl. Spritz top lightly with cooking spray and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk – 60 to 90 minutes.
Punch down dough and turn out onto floured board. Lightly knead dough and form into a flattened ball. Allow to rest five to 10 minutes.
To make a loaf, shape dough into a rectangle that will fit in a 9″ x 4.25″ greased loaf pan. Cover and allow to rise until doubled in bulk.
To make rolls, using a dough scraper cut dough in four equal quarters. Set three quarters aside and cover. Shape remaining quarter into a flattened ball and divide into four quarters. Shape each quarter in to a ball and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Flatten each ball. Repeat for remaining dough, cover, and allow to rise until rolls double in bulk.
Heat oven to 425F for loaf or 400F for rolls.
In small bowl, beat together egg and water. Brush loaf or rolls with egg mixture and bake on middle oven rack. Rolls will need about 25 minutes, the loaf will need about 40 minutes. Monitor closely to avoid overcooking.
Cool on a wire rack.