Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homemade Bread

A little bread—a crust—a crumb—
A little trust—a demijohn—
Can keep the soul alive—

Not portly, mind! but breathing—warm—
Conscious—as old Napoleon,
The night before the Crown!
--Emily Dickinson

Truly, is there any food as able to "keep the soul alive . . . breathing--warm" as a generous slice of fresh-baked bread? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps this is largely due to the loving care the baker must put into each batch: the devoted exertion of the kneading, the attentive watch near the end of the rising, the firm but gentle touch involved in shaping and slashing each loaf.

I have been baking almost all the bread my family eats for the past few years and have come to cherish this means of nourishing those I love. While I prepare multiple meals almost every day and bake a variety of sweets and treats, nothing I do in the kitchen is as fulfilling as this. Now that my girls can mix and knead along with me, the experience has become even richer.

I am drawn to bread baking not only as a caregiver, but also as an anthropologist. One of the simplest, most essential culinary activities utilized by humankind, bread making has been practiced in one form or another by nearly every human culture that has existed since grains were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago. Making homemade bread, then, connects us not only to our own ancestors but also to women and men throughout the world who have nurtured their families and communities with their own forms of "the staff of life."

I was once intimidated by the prospect of working with yeast. Since I didn't grow up baking yeast breads, I was often afraid of not getting the water exactly the right temperature, or of adding too much or too little flour during the kneading process. Not surprisingly, it took me a while (and many trials and errors) to figure out how to consistently produce a decent loaf. If I had to do it over again, I would jump in with a more confident, playful attitude, and ask for some tutoring from someone whose bread I enjoy.

Here I share recipes (or links to finding recipes) for our family's 3 favorite staple breads. The first of these recipes I formulated myself several years ago after my husband tasted a loaf of Amish bread while on a trip to upstate New York. The other two come from a couple of my favorite bread cookbooks.

(Makes 2 loaves.) 
I modified the traditional formula for Amish white bread by using canola oil instead of shortening or lard. You could use either of those in this recipe if you prefer, though. Also feel free to adjust the amount of sugar. My husband joins the Amish in preferring his white bread a bit sweet, but I prefer it with less (or no) sugar. Play around with it to see what works for you. This is a soft, tender loaf and slices beautifully.

2 cups warm water (110-115°)
2/3 cup white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup canola oil
6-6½ (5½  + ½-1) cups bread flour

In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, and then stir in yeast. Allow to proof until the yeast resembles a creamy foam (about 5 minutes).
Add the oil to the yeast and sugar mixture. Mix in 5½ cups of flour, one cup at a time, adding the salt after several cups of flour are incorporated. Use the remaining ½-1 c. flour to knead the dough until smooth (10-12 minutes). Place in a well-oiled bowl, and turn the dough over to coat. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough down. Knead briefly, and divide in half. Shape each half into a loaf and place each in a well-oiled 9x5 inch loaf pan. Allow to rise for 30-45 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.
About 15 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 350°. Just before baking, place a broiling pan with a rack on the lower rack of the oven. Slash the loaves. After putting the loaves in, fill the broiling pan with 1 cup hot water. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

Jason's Whole Wheat Bread
(Makes 3 loaves.)
This is the bread that the girls and I have most enjoyed making together. It a kid-friendly bread in every way: it is both healthy and slightly sweet; it is not complicated to make; and once baked, it slices well for sandwiches. In fact, this recipe was written by a child. I found it in Recipes from the Old Mill: Baking with Whole Grains, a wonderful bread cookbook by written by two sisters (and available for purchase here). This is the story they tell of this recipe's origin: 
At 10 years of age, Jason, our nephew, began to bake bread. Since he has lived all his life next door to the old mill, it is not surprising that he chose to start with Whole Wheat Bread. He first went to the mill, got fresh ground whole wheat flour, and then made the bread for his brother's birthday dinner. What a wonderful gift of love and life!
warm water
2 pkgs. dry yeast
1/2 cup honey
2 Tbsp. oil
1 Tbsp. salt
1/2 cup instant nonfat dry milk
4 cups whole wheat flour
4-4 1/2 cups flour

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water.
2. Add honey, oil, salt, dry milk, and whole wheat flour. Mix well.
3. Add enough additional flour to make a stiff dough.
4. Knead 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
5. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top.
6. Cover and let rise until double, approximately 1 hour.
7. Punch down. Shape into three loaves. Place in greased 8" a 4" pans.
8. Cover and let rise until double, approximately 1 hour.
9. Bake at 375° for 30-40 minutes.

Whole Grain Artisan Loaf 
(Master Recipe)
This is my all-time favorite everyday bread recipe. It is the feature recipe in Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, the second "Artisan Revolution" cookbook by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François. Refreshingly simple both in terms of ingredients and in method, it requires only flour (both white and whole wheat), yeast, salt and water [it also calls for vital wheat gluten, but I don't use it] , and it needs no kneading(!). You just mix up the dough, let it sit at room temperature a couple of hours, and then either form it into loaves or pop it in the refrigerator. 

Since it keeps well for at least a week, the baker can tear off and bake small batches of it whenever s/he needs a fresh loaf.  I usually bake our loaves in pans so it is easy to slice for sandwiches, but it also makes beautiful free-form loaves. In fact, it is an exceptionally versatile recipe and makes tasty pizza crusts, pita bread, crusty dinner rolls and cinnamon-raisin loaves. I made a bread wreath with it for the holidays and am planning to make cinnamon rolls for breakfast next weekend. 

Click here to learn more about Hertzberg and François' cookbooks and to find purchasing information. Or visit your local library to borrow a copy of the one you choose. 

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