On Bread
By Lydia on September 8, 2010 5:41 PM| | Comments (0)
It is so cold! I have managed to wrestle all but one overpainted window shut, and have nearly enough cats and blankets around, and it is Time To Bake Bread. Time To Bake Bread (like Time To Boil Vegetable Stock, or Time To Mull Wine)  is also sometimes known as An Excuse To Run The Oven, Thus Heating The House, While Not Feeling Guilty About One's Carbon Footprint. Because while putting on a sweater is a good alternative to turning up the thermostat, you just can't wrap bread dough in wool.
If you need a better excuse to bake, you can run some cost analysis on bought bread vs. homemade, or you can stand in Meijers for a bit until you despair of all the sandwich loaves, but on a day like today I really think the weather says it all. Besides, there are few better smells than those involved in the bread process. It starts like a brewery and ends like a bakery. Lovely all around. Now I know that really delicious bread can be had from commercial bakeries around town, but often you are subject to just a couple of styles, which may or may not be what you particularly want to be eating (I am looking at you, Nantucket.) There are times when artisinal, rustic loaves are not what you need, and maybe you don't care for gobs of cheese running through your crumb. (We shall gloss over the sad fact that a toast habit like mine can bankrupt if given half a chance.) But worry not, as bread baking requires little more than a commitment of time, time spent mostly ignoring the main project, time which is a great excuse to read a nice book with one's cats.
I do know that bread can be very intimidating. It can seem impossible that your mass of yeast and flour turn into a golden and perfect loaf. Remember that bread is a very broad category, and some types are more difficult to wangle than others. The following recipe is from James Beard, filtered through my mother, and it has made some picture-perfect bread for me many times. It is different from the rustic Italian and French breads I buy at the bakery, which typically contain only flour, salt, water and yeast. This bread has a much longer list of ingredients, is more tender, and keeps longer. But really they are two different beasts, each suited to different uses. This is a part-wheat sandwich loaf. It is wonderful plain with butter, toasted with a poached egg on top, and in concert with bacon and tomato (see many of my earlier posts.)

Wheat-ish Sandwich Bread, with thanks to James Beard and my mama.

1/2 C cracked wheat or bulgar (med/fine grind)
1 1/2 C water
1 T yeast
1/3 C warm water
1/4 C soft butter
1 1/2 t salt
2 T molasses or honey
1 C milk
1 C whole wheat flour
4 C regular flour

Boil the water in a small saucepan, throw in the bulgar and cook about 10 minutes, stirring, until the water is absorbed. Proof the yeast with warm water and a teaspoon of sugar (this just means mix the yeast with warm, not hot, tap water to see if it bubbles after a few minutes. If it does, the yeast is good and lively, if not, yeast is dead and useless. You can skip this step if you use instant yeast.) Stir the butter, salt, molasses and milk into the wheat. Cool the mixture to lukewarm and add the yeast mixture. If you add the yeast to a hot porridge, you could kill the yeast. Stir in the flour cup by cup.

Knead!! for about 10 minutes. The whole kneading thing is meant to develop gluten and this can get very complicated because you aren't supposed to do it too much or too little. Forget all about that for this, though. Just knead the damn thing, adding flour as you need it to keep the dough from sticking to your hands or the table. After about 10 minutes it should be smooth, elastic and no longer sticky.

All right, now butter a large bowl just a little and put in your dough. Cover it with a damp towel and put it somewhere nice. Somewhere a cat would like to hang out. Cats and bread dough have a lot in common in terms of where they like to be. Find someplace warm-ish, out of any drafts. Let it sit for an hour to an hour and a half, the bread should double in size. If it doubles in like, 20 minutes, the spot you picked was too warm! If it takes 2 1/2 hours the spot was too cold! The latter is only a problem in terms of time, but the shorter the rising, the less flavorful the bread. You do not want hyperactive yeasts! When the rising has been accomplished, "punch down" the dough. Don't really punch it though! Just sink your fist into it gently to deflate. Then cut the wad in half, shape each into an oval, and put into two greased loaf pans. Preheat your oven to 375 F. Let the loaves rise in your nice, non-drafty spot, covered with the towel, until they puff up over the tops of the pans. Now bake them! For about 30-35 minutes. They will look done. Pop them from the pans, and give each a tap on its bottom. It should sound hollow (this is very satisfying.) Turn your oven off, but pop the loaves back in for 5 minutes to crisp up the bottoms a bit.

Ta-da! Try to wait for the bread to cool a little before you slice it, but I understand if you cannot. The last wonderful trick? Freeze the second loaf! Seriously! It will come out fine! Just wrap it in foil and maybe a zipper bag, and it will be as good as new when you take it out! The whole thing sounds daunting, maybe, but once you are done you will feel so accomplished! And though I am told that this feeling does not mean you "deserve" a beer, I bet no one will look askance if you have one- they will be too busy eating your wonderful bread!