Sunday, February 27, 2011

Homemade Bread

I have fond memories of helping my mother make bread, and then getting to eat the heel, fresh out of the oven, with too much butter. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I started making bread on my own, and remember feeling great pride that I could actually make something edible. As an adult, I am very comfortable with baking and I look back on my teenaged self and have two thoughts: one, how naive I was to think making bread was hard, and two, maybe it was good I felt it was an accomplishment or I wouldn't have continued.

Now I go through phases where making bread feels like a wonderful treat, warming the house on a cold day, and then I'll feel that buying bread from our local bakery is the treat - how easy! How many choices! Luckily, I am able to time these phases to the seasons so I don't bake bread in the summer.

I am a little glib in my statement that bread is easy. Some bread is. I certainly have had my share of brick-like flops. Sourdough alludes me. I have yet to get a really dark, rich raisin bread like a bakery can. However, I have found a recipe that works for me, day in and day out. My first two cookbooks were The Joy of Cooking from my grandmother and The Baba-A-Louis Bread Book from my father. I practiced with the bread book for years, making consistently good bread. I followed their basic formula of 2 lbs flour to 3 cups water and 1 teas. yeast, adding extras as desired. That formula morphed into my own basic loaf that I make two or three times a week. I vary the extras, sometimes bake it in a bread pan, sometimes I form it into a boule. It's always slightly different. Once you get the basic formula down, you, too can explore.

The joy of this bread, for me at least, is that it can go all day. I put it together in the morning and sometime in the evening put it into loaves to rise. By the time I go to bed, I've cooked it. The long, slow rise eliminates the need for a second kneading, so that this bread almost makes itself. It's similar to laundry: the whole process can feel overwhelming until you realize all you need to do first is sort the clothes and put a load into the washer. You then have some time to do something else before the drying step happens, and then more time before you fold and put away. Broken down into steps, it's quite doable in an otherwise full schedule. I make the dough in a mixer, though it definitely can be kneaded by hand.

Basic Bread
makes 2 loaves

1 lb. white flour (or bread flour which makes for a smaller crumb)
1 lb. whole wheat or white wheat flour
2 cups dry oats
1/4 cup cornmeal or wheat germ
1/4 cup flax seeds
1 teas. instant yeast
1 teas. sea salt
2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP molasses (maple syrup can be substituted though it makes the bread dry out quicker)
3 cups warm water

In the bowl of a mixer, add all ingredients. With a dough hook, mix until dough forms a wet, evenly mixed mass, ~ a minute or two. It will seem very wet but the oatmeal will soak up a lot of the moisture as it rises.

Remove bowl from mixer, place a damp towel over bowl, and put in a warm place. I use a radiator. Hours later (anywhere from two to ten), punch down and divide into two even lumps. Knead each lump on a floured surface for a few minutes, form into a loaf, and either put onto an oiled cookie sheet for a boule or into two oiled bread pans for loaves.

Let rise in a warm place for an hour or so, until dough has almost doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 and bake bread for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 or 10 minutes then remove bread from pans or cookie sheet and let cool on a rack. Unless you want to dig into the bread immediately, which I highly recommend.