Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One Fresh Loaf

The more I've experimented with bread baking lately, the less I can justify purchasing it from the store. Deep down I know this is silly really, and I'll still pick up a loaf in a rush, but it's just so easy and rewarding to make bread at home.

Most importantly, bread made at home is obviously as fresh as you'll get it. After you've managed to cover your hands in sticky dough, the counter in flour-hardened dough, and your shirt/pants/face in flour, the wafting scent of nearly done bread filling your home and the delight in pulling out a loaf from the oven that has miraculously risen and finished to perfection is a beautiful thing.

From the start, making bread at home can seem daunting because each recipe, and there are millions, varies slightly not only in ingredients but in seemingly very science-y ways such as exact temperatures in the environment, specific lengths of multiple rises, certain types of yeast, and a cultural debate over whether bread prefers to rise in an oil-coated bowl or a dry one. As an amateur bread baker at best, I can say that trying my best to follow a well-tested bread recipe and not over-thinking it, i.e. fretting too much if I am unsure whether it rose exactly twice its size or for exactly 45 minutes has led to some fine results.

Before the recipes, a few memoirs to comfort the reticent baker:
How Michael Ruhlman Overcame his Fear of Yeast
Breadmaking Tips from the Smitten Kitchen
And from Trailbraising, I say, simply, always read the recipe in full before starting out, taking note of how much lapsed rise time the bread will actually need. I will bold all significant time lapses in the following recipes. The worst disappointment comes when you've started a recipe, already tasting the dream of bread in your mouth, only to discover an overnight rise is only the beginning to the process.

A Quick and Easy Loaf: English Muffin Toasting Bread 

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. instant yeast [I used Dry Active in a pinch and it still worked out fine]
1 cup milk
1/4 cup water
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
cornmeal, to sprinkle in pan


1. Whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and yeast in a large mixing bowl or in the food processor.
2. Combine the milk, water, and oil in a separate, microwave-safe bowl, and heat for a few minutes until it is hot but not scalding. to between 120°F and 130°F. The liquid will feel very hot (hotter than lukewarm), but not so hot that it would scald you. 
3. Pour the hot liquid over the dry ingredients.
4. Beat on high or pulse for 1 minute, resulting in a very soft dough.
5. Lightly grease a loaf pan, sprinkling the bottom and sides with cornmeal to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to the pan and level out.
6. Cover the pan with a dish cloth, and let the dough rise until it's even to slightly over the rim of the pan, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°F.
7. Bake the bread for 20 to 22 minutes until it's golden brown. If you want to be exact, bread is typically done with the inner temperature has reached 190 to 210 degrees.

Some simple, yet exotic rolls: Olive and Rosemary Rolls

1 tsp. dry active yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lukewarm whole milk
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. olive oil
generous 1/2 cup black olives, remove the seeds
1 1/2 Tbsp. rosemary leaves
all purpose flour, for kneading
olive oil, for brushing

1. Mix together the yeast, sugar and milk in a bowl. Set aside in a warm place for 5 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface. This process is called proofing.
2. Add the flour, salt and oil to the yeast mixture and mix until a smooth dough forms. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 5 minutes or until smooth and elastic, adding a little extra flour if the dough becomes too sticky. Cover with plastic wrap, set aside in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
3. Brush a round cake pan with oil.
4. Tear the olives into pieces and knead the olives and rosemary leaves into the dough on a generously floured surface, incorporating extra flour to compensate for the wetness of the olives. Divide into 16 pieces and roll into balls. Place in the prepared pan, cover with a clean dish towel and set aside in a warm place for 45 minutes or until the dough is doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush the tops with olive oil and bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden.

And for a wow from the crowd: Grape Focaccia with Rosemary

3/4 cup warm water
2 Tbsp. milk, slightly warmed
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 cups halved Concord, red or black grapes (no seeds please!)
1 tsp. fresh rosemary needles
2 Tbsp. raw or coarse sugar
2 tsp. coarse sea salt

1. Stir together the water, milk, sugar, and yeast. Let the mixture sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the flour, salt and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the yeast mixture and mix well (either in a mixer with a dough hook, in a food processor with a dough blade, or by hand with a wooden spoon). This kneading should last about 6 to 8 minutes depending on your method.
2. Brush a large bowl with a generous amount of olive oil. Scrape dough into the bowl and brush the top with additional oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a cool place until it doubles in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
3. Press the dough down with a floured hand. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide it into two balls.
4. Brush a large baking sheet with olive oil, place the balls of dough on it and brush the top with more oil. Set it aside for 20 minutes, lightly covered with a kitchen towel.
5. After 20 minutes, dip your fingers in olive oil and press and stretch each ball of dough into a 8 to 9-inch circle shape. Cover again with the towel and let it rise for another 1 1/4 hours in a cool place.
6. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Brush tops of dough with remaining olive oil and sprinkle top with grapes, rosemary, coarse sugar and coarse sea salt evenly over the dough. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and puffed around edges. Serve warm or at room temperature.


My next goal is to forge my way into the world of "wild yeast" where you actually cultivate your own yeast. This is a common practice with sourdough breads in particular. When you make a starter, it's just a matter of creating the right condition to "awaken" the yeast that already lives on fresh grains. And, in the case of sourdough, collecting the bacteria that makes it sour. One you have a yeast culture, as long as you leave some remaining, the fungus yeast, which grows asexually by budding or fission, will be your own little renewable food resource in the household fridge.

But for those of you who still want to buy from the store, I recently learned that there's a secret code for bread freshness - the color of the twist tie or plastic fastener! Who knew?! If you have a poor memory, I would stash this easy key in your wallet. Or you can remember that bread is delivered daily from Monday to Saturday and the color code progresses alphabetically by day - Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow. Neat.

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