April 2009


In my family, we celebrated the process of growing up. Birthdays were benchmarks to adulthood, earning us new perks and responsibilities. As I grew, I knew that Age 13 would herald Wearing Makeup, and Age 16 meant receiving a Birthstone Ring. I’d seen my older siblings arrive at these achievements, and eagerly awaited my own birthdays so I could catch up to them.

When I turned 11 years old, I was old enough to own my first pocketknife. It was a chunky camp tool with extra attachments ranging from a fish scaler to a fork and spoon. With that perk, I was given the responsibility of making bread.

Our bread was both a staple and a treat. We could smell when it was almost done, gathering near the kitchen and visualizing the golden top opened by a knife, steam rising as we slathered butter over the soft interior. It made even borsht night bearable.

I’d been cooking for 3 years already, but bread was a big deal, reserved for an older child. My mother didn’t use a recipe, teaching me as she had learned. After pulling out the big, silver bowl, she showed me how much ingredients to use, how to test the proper water temperature, to create the dough, time the rise, and bake the bread using sight, touch and smell.

I learned that you can put anything in your bread. But a basic loaf is composed of only four ingredients:

  1. Liquid
  2. Yeast
  3. Flour
  4. Salt

These simple ingredients work together. The flour, when wet, forms strings of protein, or gluten. The yeast takes sugars and moisture from the wet flour to multiply and produce gas. This gas inflates the strings of protein, making little pockets. When you bake the bread, the strings harden, creating the crumb — the small holes you see in the inside of the bread. The salt not only adds flavor, but it also inhibits the yeast, so the protein strings can form slowly and be stronger, creating fluffier bread.

Try it for yourself. In a large mixing bowl, place:

1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons of yeast (bread machine, commercial, active-dry: it doesn’t matter here)

Wait 5 minutes. The yeast is absorbing water and expanding. This is called “activating” or “proofing” the yeast. After 5 minutes, you’ll see a lot of it has sunk to the bottom. The yeast still floating is poofy. This yeast is ready to roll.

Add 2 cups flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

All-purpose, high-gluten, “bread flour” — each will give you a traditional flavor for your first loaf. Use white unbleached flour here. 100% whole grain breads use an adjusted recipe. If you want to add the nutty flavor of rye or whole wheat, substitute 1 cup of the heavier grain for 1 cup of the white at this point.

If you have a table mixer with a dough hook, you can use that. If you are mixing by hand, use a sturdy butter knife or the handle of a wooden spoon to mix.

Add additional flour 2 tablespoons at a time.

How much flour is enough? The dough should be elastic, not stick to the sides of the bowl, and feel only slightly tacky on your fingers.

Knead 10 times.

To knead, flour your hand and press the dough down in the center of the bowl. Lift one side of the dough and fold it toward the other side. Press it down. Lift one side again. Only 8 more to go!

Cover the bowl and wait for it to double in size.

This is the first rise. Depending on what type of yeast you used, this could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Gently press down on the dough with your fist to get the air out.

This is called “punching down the dough.” Be gentle. It’s not a boxing match, and the dough is actually very nice when you get to know it.

Roll the dough out of the bowl into a greased bread pan
—or—
Shape into a log and place on greased cookie sheet.

Wait until the dough has doubled again.

This is the second rise. Usually, the second rise is slightly faster than the first.

Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Bread is done when the internal temperature is 200 degrees.

Remove the loaf and let it cool 5 minutes. If using a pan, turn it upside-down on a cutting board and prop up one edge an inch or so with a utensil or cutting board. The bread will fall out when it has cooled enough. Don’t worry; the inside will still be hot enough to melt butter.

This plain recipe doesn’t make the most interesting loaf, so feel free to experiment. A few suggestions:

  • Add 1 room-temperature egg and 1 tablespoon sugar to the water/yeast mixture to create a richer loaf.
  • Substitute warm milk for 1/3 of the water for a moist, airy loaf.
  • Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil or warm butter for a rich, smooth texture.
  • Fold in dried fruit, cinnamon, cheese, oats, or seeds right before you start kneading.
  • After forming the loaf, spray oil on the top and sprinkle rosemary and Celtic sea salt over the loaf. Try other spices on top. Or honey, thinned with water.

Have fun experimenting, and don’t be afraid that you will mess it up. Even “mistakes” taste delicious. You may even find a signature recipe that you will call your own.

Mmm. Now I’m hungry — I’m off to make more bread!

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I’m one of those annoying people that likes to get taxes out of the way in February, so I’ve been sitting on this tip for some time. However, even the procrastinators out there should be ready to hear this:

Compost your shreds.

That’s right, take your information security to the next level by stuffing your black and white, shredded documents into your compost pile. Not only does this count as a “brown” addition that soaks up extra moisture and makes your resident worms (if you’ve got ‘em) delirious with joy, but a compost bin is the one place that no one wants to paw through.

Shred the tax booklets and compost ‘em. And since a U.S. resident only needs 7 years of tax reports, bust out the 2001 forms and shred them, too.

What else have you put in your compost? Let us know in the comments below!