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Monday, August 8

Gapers Block

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Contrary to popular belief, baking your own yeast bread isn't hard. Or hopelessly time-consuming. I realize that doing your own baking might seem senseless when any grocery store has hundreds of loaves at any given time, all with a wide variety of flours, sugars, etc. And it's true: there's a lot of good bread out there, such as the Baltic Bakery or the introduction of the La Brea line at Jewel.

But the first thing you have to realize about baking bread is that you get a lot more out of the process than just the product. Baking bread is comforting. The feeling of your hands touching dough and the smell it infuses throughout the house while cooking has a lasting calming effect. Baking bread will give you two good loaves most of the time, but it will always give you some great therapy.

First, a few ground rules about baking bread:

1. You're going to screw it up. The yeast is going to die on you, the bread won't rise right, you'll bake it too long. It's OK. Try again.

2. Even if you hate white bread, don't try and bake wheat bread until you know what you're doing. At the store, white bread is usually a tasteless ball of air. The bread you'll bake at home will be different. Promise.

3. Make sure that the flour you're trying to use is relatively fresh. Flour does spoil, so buying a new bag before you begin is a good idea.

In this column, I have just one recipe for white bread. This produces a milky, rich loaf. It's a perfect loaf to get acquainted with dough, how to knead and how to deal with yeast. In future columns, we'll try other types of bread that will familiarize you with different textures and types of bread.

You'll need:

- 2 envelopes active dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water (105 degrees if you're technical, bath-water-warm if you're not)
- 1/4 cup honey
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon melted butter
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 6 to 7 cups flour
- lots of butter for when it's done, possibly jam

Get a ceramic bowl big enough to hold all of the ingredients. Add the water and mix the yeast over top of it. Add the honey, butter and salt and whisk until the yeast is dissolved. Let it stand for awhile, about 5 minutes. Smell the yeast while you're waiting. They like that.

Add 3 cups flour to the liquid and beat with a spoon until smooth. Add 3 more cups, a heaping tablespoon at a time, until you have something resembling dough. Doesn't look right? Add more flour. It should be sticky but not glued to the sides of the bowl.

Time for kneading: throw some flour down on a clean countertop, powder your hands and get to work. As you knead, add additional flour when the dough gets too moist or sticky. As you work it, you'll feel it getting smooth. You'll knead for about 5 minutes or so. Put your worries into the bread; it makes it taste better and relaxes you.

Take another bowl (or the dried and cleaned bowl you mixed the dough in) and spread a little butter around in it. Toss the dough in there, cover with a slightly moist cloth or plastic wrap. Find a nice, warm spot to let it rise. If it's not too cold out, the center of the range (where the pilot light is) is often good. Let rise until doubled, probably 45 minutes.

Crank the oven to 400. Butter two loaf pans. (If you don't have two, butter some muffin tins -- you can make dinner rolls with the extra dough.)

This is where things start to get pungent and great: punch down the dough. Even if your bread doesn't turn out, you got that moment of yeasty goodness. Wow. Lovely.

Split the dough in half and knead again for a few minutes. Shape it into a loaf and plop it into a loaf pan, seam side down. Let the dough rise again until doubled, about 15 minutes. If you want a shiny crust (aka butter crust), brush some butter on top. Be fancy and put some slits in the top to mark your territory. Or just don't do anything, that's fine too.

Put the loaves in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes. Enjoy the aromatherapy of bread-scent wafting through your abode.

Supposedly, you can turn out the loaf, tap, and hear a hollow sound, and then know it's done. That's never worked for me. I bake until it looks done, and then I take it out. Scientific this technique is not, but I've had pretty good results.

Even though it's really really tempting to eat the bread right away, wait. If you cut it too soon it'll smoosh the bread. Wait 20-30 minutes, then slice. Then butter, possibly add some jam, and you're in bread heaven.

You'll never get anything like that at Jewel, I promise.

Next month: French bread

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Naz / August 31, 2004 10:14 AM

That sounds pretty simple. Makes me want to go and bake bread now. Baking bread always sounds like it's a highly skilled activity (which I'm sure it is) but this sounds do-able. In fact, I'll try to make a goal for the week. Thanks Brian.

anne / August 31, 2004 11:04 AM

I've always had trouble with drafty apartments that won't let the bread rise well. My stove is right by a big ole window in the kitchen, and the back door. Any other good spots or tricks?

Also, why a ceramic bowl to mix? Problem with using a pyrex glass one or an aluminum one?

Andrew / August 31, 2004 11:11 AM

Anne, try warming it inside your (turned off) oven. The pilot light in there should be warm enough, and there'll be no draft.

anne / August 31, 2004 11:26 AM

Thanks Andrew, but wouldn't it be a problem that it would then be sitting out somewhere while the oven heated up to 400?

Andrew / August 31, 2004 11:39 AM

Well, once the oven is turned on, you could put the bowl on the stove, and close the window for awhile. Hopefully the oven would warm the stovetop enough to make up for the draft.

But regardless, dough will rise even in a relatively cool spot -- it just needs more time to do it.

Ian Olsen-Clark / August 31, 2004 1:08 PM

Anne, you can take Andrew's 'cool rise' suggestion to it's logical extememe, and the proof the dough overnight in the refrigerator. A slow rise will actuualy improve the flavour of the bread and allows you to break down the baking process in to two steps.

Also, great article Brian! It's nice to see some discussion of real bread here, not the styrofoam like product, sold by so many stores.

brian / August 31, 2004 2:12 PM

Anne - the easiest place in small apartments is the least drafty spot. Put your bread in the closet. Next to the furnace is not bad either (if you have that type of furnace).

I recommended a ceramic bowl for a simple reason: you want the bowl to be a warm temperature. Metal bowls are bad for this; glass is ok. (I sometimes swish warm water around the bowl to make sure the yeast isn't too cold.)

Thank you for the compliments. Looking forward to hearing about your results!

anne / August 31, 2004 3:03 PM

I am much more confident after reading this, Brian. I bought some yeast today, and I'm taking a swing at it tonight! Thanks!

Lulu / September 1, 2004 11:04 AM

Do you use all the butter (melted and solid) at the same time? This recipe looks great by the way--I think I'll have a Little House on the Prairie afternoon this weekend and try it out.

brian / September 2, 2004 11:47 AM

Nice call Lulu. I hate when directions are confusing like that.

The three tablespoons are for mixing with the yeast in the dough. The 1 tsp. melted is really for dusting the top of the loaves before you bake them.


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