I love bread.
I always have. One of my favorite childhood pictures of myself features a 3-year-old Corianne wearing pink footy pajamas (the bane of my young existence–I still can’t stand to have my feet covered when I sleep). I’d gotten into the bread drawer, and broken in to a bag, and have a half-eaten slice of Wonder Bread in my hand–still chowing down on it. That picture sums up the relationship that I’ve had with bread for my whole life.
I love making bread. I don’t have a bread maker or a stand mixer, so I make bread the way my grandmothers did–with a mixing bowl, a wooden spoons and my hands.
I love kneading. Even when I’m making bread somewhere where I do have access to a stand mixer, I’ll usually turn the dough out early and knead it by hand. I love the way that kneading unlocks the power of gluten, turning a sticky glob of wet flour and a few other ingredients into a beautiful ball of bread dough. I love the workout to my hands, arms and shoulders that kneading provides. I also love that kneading is a wonderful way to work out any frustrations. I love how when the dough has come together the way it should, just at the point when it is ready to rest and rise, it feels like a living thing. In fact, I love that due to the yeast, it is a living thing.
Yeast holds a magic of its own. In my fridge, the yeast appears to be a crumbly, beige powder that smells like it’s started to turn. But, when mixed with warm water or milk, and a little bit of sugar or honey, it springs to life, raising the bread, making it light, airy and delicious.
I love the way, once the dough comes together, that you can cover it, and leave it in a warm place for forty-five minutes, it will double in size. You can then punch it down, and come back in another forty-five minutes, it will have doubled in size again.
I even love the way that bread dough tastes–it reminds me of days spent at my grandmother’s house, when she would make bread. She would slip my sister and I bites of bread dough–which, to most people, is pretty nasty stuff until it’s been baked. To me, it tastes like childhood.
I’ve been wanting to make bread for a while, but it’s usually too late at night when I think of it. Bread is simple to make, but it takes a long time–however most of that time is waiting.
Yesterday, I thought about making bread at 7pm. I thought about the three hours it would take, and decided that 10pm wasn’t unreasonably late to be pulling something out of the oven.
And so, I mixed, and scalded milk, and used up the last of my yeast. I happily stirred, then kneaded, and set the dough aside to rise. At that point, I wondered if I had remembered to put in any salt. So, I tasted the dough, and sure enough, I’d forgotten the salt.
What now? The dough had come together, it was too late to mix anything in. I pulled it out, and kneaded a little salt in, but I didn’t dare add too much, because I didn’t want to over-knead, and I didn’t want salty pockets of dough. So I just hoped it’d turn out.
Long story short, it didn’t. The bread looked and smelled beautiful, but the taste is off.
Salt is easy to overlook, as my recent baking misadventures have proven. It’s only 1 Tablespoon of white powder in a recipe that calls for cups and cups of various other white powders. It isn’t essential to the chemistry of baking, it doesn’t affect the appearance or texture of the baked good. My bread is perfectly edible. In fact, due to the over-abundance of salt in the processed foods that are so much a part of the western diet, it’s probably healthier than a normal loaf of white homemade bread.
But still, salt is essential. Salt heightens sweet, and deadens bitter. It adds the finishing touch to meat, vegetables, and yes, even bread.
In baking, I suppose, leaving out the salt isn’t as big of deal as leaving out, say the yeast or the flour, but it’s a big enough deal. Salt may seem like a small thing, but without it, the time, energy and effort that I put into baking bread last night was wasted.
The little things are important. Big things are just made up of a bunch of little things.
Thinking along those lines makes the big things easier to tackle.
1 c milk
1 c water
1 Tbsp shortening
1 Tbsp margarine
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp salt
1/4 c warm water
1 Tbsp yeast
6 1/2 c flour
Scald (heat until just before it starts to boil) milk; add 1 cup water, shortening, margarine, sugar and salt. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, put the 1/4 c warm water and 1 Tbsp yeast, stir to dissolve. Let sit for 10 minutes. (This is called “blooming” or “proving” the yeast, it a) gives the yeast a head start before it has to raise the bread, and b) lets you know that your yeast is good before investing the next three hours of your life to the project)
Combine the cooled milk mixture and yeast mixture into a large mixing bowl. Stir in 3 c of flour, and blend well. Knead in enough of the flour to make the dough come together. (this is hard to explain. The dough shouldn’t be sticky, but it should hold its shape. The best way to find out if the dough is coming together properly is through trial and error. Sorry. Kneading by hand is simple, you fold the dough in on itself, then push out with the palm of your hand. Fold and push, fold and push.) Knead for 10-15 minutes. (Just think of how much more bread you can eat because of the calories burned by kneading!)
Place in a greased bowl, cover with a clean dish towel, and place in a warm, draft free spot. Let the dough rise until double, (about 45 minutes, I start checking after 20) punch down (just what it sounds like; take your fist, and punch the bread dough once or twice. It should collapse on itself) and let double again.
Shape into two loaves, and place in greased pans. Let raise, then bake at 450° Fahrenheit for 10 minutes, then at 350° F for 30 minutes.