Wonder Bread

on 15 December 2009

A few weeks ago, the Luminous Eleanor Q, asked for a bread tutorial.  And since she is my Jewish Twin, I am happy to oblige her!

I grew up with a lovely mother who made all of our bread.  Partly for economics (it's cheaper to make your own anything) and partly for nutrition (my mother DESPISES store bought bread which she describes with a tone of disdain, "It's nothing but AIR!"), we ate homemade bread all my life.  On very rare occasions (when my mom was traveling and there wasn't any bread in the freezer) my dad would purchase us the forbidden and illicit store bought white bread of our childish dreams.  But as surely as my mother lives and breathes, once she came  home, she made more bread and that much maligned "loaf" would find its way to the trash.

As an adult, I realized that I really needed to learn to make bread because I CRAVED it constantly when under stress and being an adult is really stressful.  I found that nothing would satisfy like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on homemade bread and nothing would comfort my anxieties like a piece of homemade bread toast with cinnamon and sugar.  And so, in graduate school I set out to learn to make bread.

I am a book learner.  When I don't know how to do something whether it's a foreign language, dealing with a newborn, or making bread, I turn to a book.  I can read, think and understand it in a matter of hours.  (I don't know how, my brain just works like that.)  So, when I was a 2nd year Masters student, I requested Rose Levy Beranbaum's series of cookbooks (the Bread Bible, the Cake Bible and the Pie and Pastry Bible).

Now, I love Rose (as you can see, we're on a first name basis).  And for understanding the science behind bread (or cakes or pies) there is no better book out there.  She can explain to you why you need the ratio of water--flour--fat--salt--yeast and how kneading will develop the gluten and which flours and yeasts are best.  But there really are some things you just can't learn from a book.

It took many many months of me trying and failing in varying degrees to learn to make bread.  And any regular reader of this blog knows that I still fail spectacularly some time.  (Bread Bricks for dinner anyone?  Pumpkin Flop-overs for dessert!)  But I am here, to share with you what I've learned about our friend, the staff of life.  Know in advance, that you don't have to have a ton of space in your kitchen to make bread, I learned in a kitchen with (I kid you not) 2 square feet of counter space.  As long as you're organized and line up your ingredients and tools, you should be fine. 

First things First:

I think most sane people are afraid of Yeast on some level.  It is a living thing, after all.  You feed it and nurture it, only to turn around and EAT it.  It seems a little strange.  So the first rule to Bread making is that you must Stop Fearing the Yeast.  Respect it, but don't be afraid of it.  If you remember a few things, you'll be just fine.

Among other first things.  You'll need about 6-8 hours to make bread.  Not continuous hours, but a good chunk of your day when you'll need to be home and reasonably un-distracted.  Also, and this is a totally whimsical thing, but you should try to maybe be in a good mood.  I find that when I'm happier, when I'm thinking about my family and how much I love them, my bread turns out better.  I don't know why, it just does.

Final first things.  You'll need some good stuff.  Bread flour (I use Gold Medal Better for Bread), you want UNbleached, the bleaching stuff will kill you.  Now, you could go fancy and get King Arthur, it's wonderful flour, but it's expensive and it's probably going to take you a while to figure out what the dough should feel like before it turns out well...so may as well hold off on the good stuff until you really know what you're doing.  Yeast (I use Fleischmann's in the jar, I just like it better that way.), you want to buy it fresh and then keep it in the fridge so it's cool.  You don't want to use old yeast or old flour as they can affect the outcome of your bread.  Which is ok, you can eat the spoils of failed attempts...it's good, it helps you figure out what you like and don't like in a loaf of bread.

On to the breadmaking!

(You should all know, this is my MOM's recipe.  I told her that I wanted to do this and she chuckled and was humble and sweet about it.  I told her that if you all had questions, I was going to send them to HER and she would answer them, at which point she started to PROTEST.  But if you send me questions, I shall still forward them to her at which point she'll probably just CALL me and ask me to clarify on the blog.)

Assemble your necessary ingredients:

FAT:  You'll need 1/4 cup of a fat that is solid at room temperature.  My mom uses shortening, I like butter, you can choose what you like.
Liquid:  The recipe calls for 1 cup of powdered milk to 1 quart of warm-hot water, which is what I do.  But if you want to use regular milk and warm it up, you can do that, if you want to do soy or rice milk (as long as it's unflavored) I'm sure that's also fine, though you may get different results because of the varying protein structures.  Mostly you want to make sure that it's on the warm side of hot.

First, you want to dissolve your YEAST in 1 cup of warm water (not too hot because that will kill your yeast, and you'll want to add a pinch of sugar to feed the yeast).

Next, you want to melt your Fat of Choice in your Liquid of Choice.  At this point you also want to add 5 tablespoons of sugar (if you choose to use honey you'll want to use LESS liquid) and 1.5 tablespoons of salt.  I usually add 1-2 cups of bread flour at this point as well.  And I stir with a whisk because my flour can be a bit lumpy at first.  It should still be really runny (runnier than cake batter).

Now you'll stir in your dissolved yeast--it should have puffed up quite a bit while sitting there.

Now you begin to mix in the flour.  My mom's recipe calls for 6-8 cups of bread flour, I ALWAYS need more.  It's more like 9-10 cups of bread flour, but once I count up to 9 cups, I start adding it by halves because if you get too MUCH flour you'll get Bread Bricks.  (And you'll want to switch from a whisk to something sturdy like a wooden or plastic spoon, don't use a spatula you can't get enough force behind it and you REALLY don't want to continue to use a whisk because cleaning really thick bread dough out of a whisk is NOT fun.  Go on, ask me how I know that.)

Once the dough gets thick you want to start mixing and kneading with your hands.  I am a HUGE advocate for using your hands when making bread, you need to FEEL the texture of the dough to know when it's good and ready.  You want to knead it for 10 minutes.  Now, whether that's 10 minutes consecutively or 10 minutes total with a short break in the middle that's up to you.  I've had success both ways.  But make sure that you streatch it and knead it for 10 minutes.

As you're kneading you can add incriments of flour to get the dough to the right consistency.  Just be ware the Bread Bricks.  I usually add by half cups and then quarters and then just pinches until it feels the way it should feel in my hand.


Once it's slightly sticky, but not too sticky, it should feel sort of smooth and stick to itself more than your fingers.  THEN, you set it to rise.  Somewhere warmish (just not really cold), and cover it with a lid or a thin towel, you just don't want it to dry out.

2 hours later it should have risen and puffed:

Then you'll punch it down, and leave it to rise again.

2 hours later it should have risen and puffed again:

(it's stuck to the lid of the bowl.  Lovely!)

Now comes the fun part.  You want to flour your work surface, like this:

Dump out your dough. And divide it in half with a pastry scraper thing.  (I don't normally endorse bazillions of different kitchen tools, but I LOVE this scraper!  I use it all the time!)

Once you've divided it in half, divide those halves into halves again.  This will give you 4 mostly equal sized loaves.

Grease your pans and shape your loaves.  Place the loaves in the pan and lay them out to rise again. (You'll want to cover them with a thin towel of some sort to keep them from drying out again.)

2 hours (or so) later, you should be ready to preheat your oven.  Warm it up to 350 degrees and when your loaves are as big and puffy as you desire, slide them on in.  Be GENTLE, you don't want the dough to collapse on itself.

(these loaves were so big, only 3 would fit in my oven, so I baked 3 first and left the smallest to rise while the others baked.)

Bake for 45 minutes or until the desired brown.

Dump the loaves out onto a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely (if you CAN) before cutting.

Allow them to cool completely before freezing them.  This recipe will make 4 big beautiful VOLUPTUOUS loaves of bread.  We nearly always eat an entire HALF after it comes out of the oven with honey butter, or butter and jam, or cinnamon and sugar, or honey, or just butter, or just plain.  It's perfect for cold nights with a big bowl of soup (I can heartily recommend tomato), or as a grilled cheese sandwich with said soup.


Bird said...

This is amazing! I'm printing this and hanging it on my fridge! I'm going to try it (maybe next week?, take pictures and let you know how it goes. I stand humbly at the feet of your bread awesomeness. Thanks, M!