I’ve been on a quest lately to learn how to bake bread. I am a city girl–or perhaps more properly, an overdeveloped suburb girl–who up until recently has been perfectly happy to let the good people of Arnold’s Bakery take care of all my bread procurement needs.
But noooo, can’t leave well enough alone, can I? First I start making my own cheese, and now I’m moving on to bread. And then after that? Preserves! Vinegars! Beer! I joke that it’s because I now live in the frigging country and what else is a country woman to do but bake bread and age cheese and put things in cans and jars for future use, but that’s a cloaking device. A smokescreen, if you will. Some day I will rule a fermented food empire–EMPIRE, I say!–which will get me one step closer to my ultimate goal, which is, of course, to take over the world.
First things first, though. Presenting the rustic Italian loaf (I used this recipe), with of course a few minor diversions and adjustments.
When I made my first loaf of bread a few weeks ago…hoo wee, was I ever…fastidious. Stick to the instructions. Read every direction, twice. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, DON’T STRAY ONE MOLECULE OF FLOUR FROM THE RECIPE, lest a herd of wildebeests would magically crawl out of my woodwork and gorge themselves upon me.
I don’t care if wildebeests are herbivores. They would have gorged, I tell you.
As an aside, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the noble wildebeest.
Anyway. So. I did not waver one jot, one tittle from the first few recipes I tried. And then, because I have an inherent and perverse aversion to “authority” in all its forms, I couldn’t help myself. I had to change the recipe. Just a little.
It calls for three cups of bread flour but you know, I wanted something with a little bit of zazz, so I decided to go with two cups of bread flour and one cup of whole wheat flour. It worked just fine. And I proofed the yeast with buckwheat honey instead of sugar. Crazy, I know, right? Oh, yeah, and this calls for some Italian seasoning to be added in but I didn’t want to make an herb bread, so I just ground in some pepper. Look, I’m not as comfortable with bread as I am, say, with a vegetarian pasta sauce, so I need to see how things mesh together in small and understandable changes. Baby steps. It’s all good.
Perhaps I should have just looked for another recipe, you say? Fie! Fie upon you! Where’s your spirit of adventure?
As for the argument whether to proof or not to proof the yeast, I understand both sides. (Proofing means making sure the yeast is alive by “waking it up” with water and a food source, so you use some kind of sugar. If it starts foaming and bubbling, the yeast is awake and eating and it’s “proof” that the yeast is suitable for bread making. That is all.) Not proofing = easier; you just dump your yeast in your recipe. Proofing = one extra step, and you can kill the yeast if the water you proof it in is too hot. (And maybe this is cavalier of me and my attitude towards the poor little yeasties, but you’ll know if you killed the yeast by the fact of it not proofing. Yeast is cheap. If it doesn’t start to foam like crazy within a matter of minutes, just dump it out and start all over again.) While I’m learning, and getting my head into the chemistry of breadmaking, I would rather proof my yeast. I just want to understand the process. As an added bonus, the proofing yeast generates that warm, slightly tangy smell that’s almost exclusively associated with bread (though I’ve also smelled something similar in beer-making operations) and starts to make your kitchen smell fantastic right away. Here’s my tip: don’t make the water too hot. When you have not too hot water + yeast + sugar to feed the yeasties, then…in just a few minutes…you get this.
Kind of looks like the Arthur Kill at low tide, yeah? Jersey peeps, you with on this one? Anyone? Someone? Wait a few more minutes and you’ll have a fizzy, bubbly bowl of yeast that looks like this:
And really, that’s the kind of cool thing about working with yeast and cultured foods; they are alive. Or at least elements of them are at the onset.
Mix your dough and get it to a point where it isn’t sticky and can easily be pulled out of the bowl onto a floured work surface, but may look a bit of a shaggy mess.
And don’t freak out if it takes what seems like a lot more flour than the recipe calls for to become un-sticky. Especially if you’re baking on humid days (I’ve always known this), your bread will want more flour to compensate for the moisture in the air. I baked on a humid-ass, gnarly day. I used a lot of countertop flour. Start kneading.
It’s one of the things people complain about most regarding bread making; they say it makes their wrists and/or fingers hurt. But I like kneading. It lets you dig into something and work out your frustrations. You might want to save your baking for days when you need a perfectly legal, yet violent, release, and then show your dough no mercy. Or you could just, you know. Work the dough. Flatten it out, fold it into threes (like it’s a big, gooey C-fold towel) and then give it a quarter-turn and repeat. You’ll soon have a resilient, glossy, beautiful ball of dough that you’re going to put in a lightly greased bowl and stick in a warm place to rise.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the big, glossy dough ball as I was busy making cheese at the time as well (it was a busy day in the Paisley Test Kitchen) and as I was finishing the knead realized time was of the essence with my cheese. Here’s what happened:
- I put the dough in a bowl.
- I covered the bowl with a damp towel.
- I put said bowl and towel in my oven, which I’d had on earlier in the day for a different baking project (more on that at another time), so it was still slightly warm and completely safe from drafts.
- That dough rose like crazy in about an hour.
I think it would have kept going if I didn’t interfere, only then we’d have had a blob-like creature (It’s alive!) roaming the streets of central PA, instead of a bowl of puffy delicious wheaty goodness. Anyway. Punch your dough down and then put it back on your work surface. Shape it into a rectangle, and move it to a baking sheet lined with paper and dusted with cornflour. Top it in a light eggwash and then, if you’re feeling positively rakish, cut some slices into your dough, and top it with sesame seeds. Put it back in your warm, non-drafty spot for a second rise. It will look something like this going in:
And after an hour, it will look something like this:
And now you bake that thang. If you let the dough rise in the oven–like I did–you can take it out about ten minutes before you want to start baking, cover it with a towel to protect it from drafts and let the oven heat up to 375°. Or just, you know. Pre-heat your oven. I also put a small, totally ovenproof pan of water in my oven to create steam and encourage crust development. Then I put that baby in the oven and let it rip for about 40 minutes, until it became a beautiful, browned loaf that thumped when I knocked on the crust.
What’s that? You want some more?
I like this bread making thing. There’s more of this in my future. EMPIRE, I say.