Monday, March 27, 2006

Baking Bread

It was the summer of '79, the Black Summer. I'd graduated from college and was unemployed. I was dating the wrong boy. I wasn't getting along with my room-mate (one of those friends who was dear and wonderful, as long as we weren't living under the same roof. Which we did on 3, maybe 4 occasions. We no longer speak). That was the summer I learned to bake bread.

It was a survival tactic. Everything costs a lot of money when you don't have any money and I was looking for every little economy I could find. My mom gave me the Better Homes & Gardens Homemade Bread Cookbook and I was inspired to try my hand at the alchemy of bread.The recipes in this book, which as you can see I still own and have used a lot, are quite good. There is some basic baking information in the book but most of the important things seem to have been left out. Or perhaps it's just that there are certain things you can only learn by doing.

Things I've Learned about Bread that Didn't Come from a Book
It takes longer for whole wheat bread to rise than white bread.

On a damp day you will use more flour than the recipe calls for.

You can't overknead bread if you're doing it by hand but watch it if you're using a dough hook.

No book cannot adequately impart the feel of bread dough when it has been kneaded enough.

My first attempts at bread were dense and inedible. The trick is not so much ingredients and effort as developing patience. Dough needs time. How long to knead, how long it must rise and rest and rise again are all subject to forces outside the baker's control. If you are in a hurry, best to make biscuits.

I no longer bake due to financial deprivation. I bake because it is good therapy (nothing beats pounding a lump of dough if one has any frustrations to work out), because it makes the house smell like heave and because seeing 2 loaves of fresh bread cooling on the counter is one of the most satisfying things I know.

The only problem with home-baked bread is that it doesn't last as long, by which I mean, when it is around we eat far more of it than when we have store-bought flannel bread. There is no resisting a loaf fresh from the oven. A loaf has never completely cooled before everyone has to have a test slice, smeared with butter and eaten out of hand with not so much as a plate to catch the crumbs. The Dog will take care of those. And if we consume more carbs than is currently fashionably, who cares? Life is short. For me there is little point of life without bread. And wine. And cheese. Everything else might be negotiable, but not that holy trinity of yeast and bacteria sanctified.

One thing I have had little success with is sourdough. I made some sourdough starter once many years ago, carefully following the instructions to combine flour, water, yeast and sugar and leave the sponge in a warm place. It bubbled up nicely and I took care to daily stir down the sponge during the 5 day "incubation" period.

Except for the day I forgot.

I came home to an overpowering scent of yeast and a small puddle of sponge on the counter. The cleanup was complicated by the fact that dough was still dripping from somewhere. I looked up and the sponge had burst over the walls of the bowl, climbed out and over the shelf and was dripping first to the counter and then to the floor. This was a very sticky and disgusting mess to clean up and I didn't try again for years. When I did try again the starter failed to start. There seemed to be absolutely no wild yeasts present in the air of our new house (and it's the wild yeasts who crash the sedate party of the regular yeast that put the characteristic "sour" in sourdough).

I've been baking in this kitchen for 10 years now. I like to think that the environment is now conducive to sourdough success. I'm going to give it a go today, along with baking a week's supply of oatmeal-wheat bread. It's time for a fresh batch when the last loaf measures 3 inches.

Whole Wheat-Oatmeal Bread

In mixing bowl of large mixer combine:
2 T. yeast
1 c. warm water
1 T. sugar

Let stand a few moments, until foamy, then add 1-¾ c. additional warm water and ¼ c. vegetable oil.

Stir in:
1 c. rolled oats*
3- ½ c. all purpose flour
½ c. brown sugar
1 T. salt
Thoroughly combine all the ingredients.

Stir in:
3 c. whole wheat flour (whole wheat pastry flour is good for a lighter product)
½ c. wheat germ

Begin to mix with bread hook, adding in additional all-purpose flour (amount depends on weather) until dough is no longer sticky and has formed a ball. Turn out dough on a floured surface and knead by hand until dough is smooth and springs back at a touch.

Put a small amount of oil in the bread bowl (it's OK that there is still dough on the sides; no point in dirtying a second bowl), turn the dough so all sides have been oiled. Cover with damp cloth and leave in warm place to double. Punch down, form loaves and place in greased bread tins. Cover with towel and allow to rise again, until dough has doubled and is mounding up over the rim of the pans.

Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes or so, covering tops with foil if they brown too quickly.

Bread is done when it makes a hollow sound when tapped.

Cool on racks. If you can wait that long.

*If you made oatmeal for breakfast and there is some left-over you can substitute the rolled oats for cooked.

No comments: