Today I packaged and mailed an item I sold online, hung a light fixture, balanced the checkbook and baked a loaf of bread and two dozen cookies. This is what I love about being home more, is I can do more homey things.
I would love to be able to tell you it's been x-amount-of-time since we bought a loaf of commercially prepared bread from the store, but around the time of our holiday travels, both before and after, we did have to revert to store-bought a few times. If we have to get store-bought, we like that "Health Nut" bread or some such equivalent. I can say that in the last, oh, say, year and a half, we have only had to get store-bought bread about ten or twelve times. I love baking our own bread.
A million or so years ago when my kids were toddlers I read Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit and Let's Have Healthy Children by Adele Davis. She had in one of those books a recipe for whole wheat bread plus a particular technique in making it. Been a while since I made actual whole wheat bread, but I do still use the technique I learned from her. The great feature of this technique centers around waking up and feeding the yeast and then activating the gluten so the bread rises nicely and holds together well. I will share with you now my recipe and the preferred technique for baking bread:
3/4 c hot tap water
1/4 c honey or maple syrup
1 T or 2 packets yeast
2 t salt
3 to 4 cups unbleached flour (I like King Arthur)
1 1/2 T cooking oil
A stand mixer or electric mixer are extremely handy for this technique.
You will also want a timer, such as a one hour wind up kitchen timer.
a cooling rack is helpful
Turn on the hot water faucet until the water is hot, but not so hot you can't stick your hand in it. You want it to be hot enough to wake the yeast up, but not so hot as to kill it. When the tap is hot, run your 3/4 c water as noted above. Then set the two eggs in another container deep enough that you can cover them with hot water. Set the eggs (in the hot water) aside to warm. We are warming the eggs so they won't chill the yeast mixture, putting it back to sleep.
Into the 3/4 c hot water, pour 1/4 c honey or maple syrup. Being cooler than the water, it will sink to the bottom of the water in the measuring cup, so stir gently to combine and pour into your mixing bowl. Add the yeast to the sweetened water mixture in the mixing bowl and stir gently to dampen. Set your timer for ten minutes.
When the bell rings look at the yeast mixture. It should have frothed up a little. This is good - it means your yeast has awakened, and that it likes the honey or syrup you've fed it.
Add the salt and the now slightly warmed eggs, and two cups of the flour. With regular mixer beaters, or the flat mixing beater if you happen to have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, beat the batter on a medium to low setting (number 2 on the Kitchen Aid) for ten minutes. This makes a batter of a good consistency for stirring in this manner. If you don't happen to have an electric mixer of any sort, make a note to put one on your wish list and beat by hand for ten minutes. All this ten minutes of beating is important as it activates the gluten. By the end of the ten minutes your batter should be starting to get sort of a rubbery texture to it. When you pull the beaters or the spoon out of the dough it should look rubbery-stringy, a little like the texture of silly putty. This is good - this is the gluten - sort of a rubbery textured protein.
At the end of the ten minutes, turn the mixer off and lift the beater(s) out of the batter. Scrape any excess batter from the beaters back into the mixing bowl, and the beaters can then go into the wash sink. If you have a dough hook, put that onto the mixer. If you don't have a dough hook, you may look forward to a one-armed work-out.
Having a cup or two of flour handy, start gently stirring the batter with the dough hook or a very sturdy spoon or spatula. Gradually introduce flour into the mixture, about a quarter cup at a time. Sprinkle in the flour and mix it in. The mixture will get stiffer and stiffer as you go. This is where you will really wish you had at least an electric mixer, and at best a quality stand mixer. Remember: wish list. Keep slowly adding flour and mixing it in until it pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Keep it up, slowly adding flour and mixing it in until the dough forms a ball.
On a flat working surface - wooden cutting board, ordinary (CLEAN!) countertop, or the like - sprinkle a little flour, and tump your dough ball out of the bowl and onto the flour. You'll want to scrape out of the bowl any that might have stuck to the sides, although there shouldn't be much of that if you mixed in enough flour. Set your mixing bowl and the rest of your utensils in the washing sink. We'll get back to them in a minute. Wash your hands with warm water and soap, rinse thoroughly, and dry them with a towl. Remove bracelets, watches, and any rings you don't want to get in the bread dough, or don't want to get bread dough into, and knead your bread. I push down into the dough and away from me with the heels of my hands, give the dough about a quarter turn, then push with the heels of the hands, and so on. Knead - I want to say until it feels right, but that is a vague term if you haven't kneaded bread much before - so knead about a dozen to twenty times.
I will pause here to say that I have heard people say, "Oh, yes, love to knead bread because it's such a great way to release tension, to get aggression out."
I say, "No!" I do not release aggression into my bread, and don't you do it either! When I knead my bread I imagine a column of bright, glittering white light light entering the top of my head, filling my being, and coming down my arms, out my hands, and into the bread. I imagine blessing, blessing and light, flowing into the bread as a gift to anyone who partakes. It gives me goosebumps of ecstacy right now just to think of it. Bless your bread!
Okay, back to making. Once you have kneaded your bread and it feels firm, uniform and cohesive, leave it to rest while you prepare a bowl for rising. I use the bowl I mixed it in. In that case, take a moment to wash the bowl and all the utensils used so far. Dry the inside of the bowl with a towel. Pour the oil in the bottom of the bowl. I specified 1 1/2 T because that is about how much it comes out to be, but really, if you just pour about a half-dollar sized puddle in the bottom of the rising bowl, that is fine. You can eyeball it.
So you have a clean rising bowl with a little oil in the bottom. Take your dough ball, smooth it, dust off any loose flour it might have picked up from the kneading board, and gently plop it, smooth side down, into the rising bowl, and then turn it over so the smooth oily side is up.
Most recipes at this point will say "let rise in a warm place," etc. I make a warm place for my bread to rise, and here's how: Get a large bowl or pan, large enough to set the rising bowl into, and fill it up to about three and a half inches deep with hot water (again, hot tap water is quite sufficient). I don't recommend using the sink for your warm water rising because what if someone should come by and, oh, say, wash their hands, or whatever, and splash soapy hand-washing water into your blessing filled bread dough? Eww! So use a big dish or some sort of pan that you can set by somewhere not-in-the-sink to rise. Once that is all set, cover the rising bowl with what we used to call a "tea towel," which is a kitchen towel made of a smooth, close-weaved fabric like cotton or linen, and take care to keep the towel out of the warming water.
Set your timer for one hour and go do whatever, keeping your ear tuned for the timer.
When the bell rings, come look at your dough. Hopefully it's risen noticeably. Now (Wash your hands first!) you will "punch it down." Again, I say, do this matter-of-factly and with love, without aggression: form a loose fist and press your knuckles into the dough, pressing the air bubbles out. Press, press, press the bubbles out - you'll hear them go "phht! phht!" - and then pick the dough up out of the bowl, form it back into a ball like shape with a smooth side, and set 'er back in the rising bowl. Lay the towel back over the rising bowl, set the timer for another hour, wash the oil off your hands, and go do whatever until the bell rings again.
This time when the bell rings, you'll want to start with getting your loaf pan ready and turn the oven on to 350 F to preheat. If you're using a metal loaf pan you'll want to grease all interior sides with shortening. Not oil, because that will make the bread stick. If you are using a glass pan, grease it, and you'll want to preheat the oven to 325 instead of 350. If you are so furtunate as to have such as one of those Pampered Chef stoneware loaf pans, you may want to give it ever so light a spritzing of non-stick spray if it's not yet seasoned.
Once the loaf pan is ready, punch your dough down in the bowl, and then tump it out onto the kneading board. Knead, this time with attention to popping as many little air bubbles as you can, as well as kneading for smoothness. Knead, press, roll, press, roll, press, roll, and so on, until you have an approximately loaf shaped giant stubby cigar of bread dough. If it has a seam (from pressing and rolling) set the seam side down in the loaf pan. We're going to let her rise thirty more minutes before she goes in the oven (kitchen timer again).
When that thirty minute timer goes off come take a look at the bread. It should have risen noticeably and will rise even more in the oven. Place in the oven, making sure there is enough room for the loaf to rise without getting stuck to the roof of your oven. Set the timer for thrity minutes and pay attention! When that bell rings, come look at the bread. Should be a nice golden brown toasty color. Carefully remove from the oven. You should be able to either turn the pan over and tump the loaf out, or lift it out with hot pads or mitts. If it doesn't want to let go, use a table knife or some other dull slender blade to run around the sides of the pan. Should come right out then. Handle delicately at this point! It's nice if you have a rack to cool it on. Let it set for at least ten-fifteen minutes before you try to cut into it. A knife with a long, sharp-edged blade is best for slicing; they make knives specifically for this purpose.
Man, oh, man, I'm tellin' you, fresh home-baked bread, filled with blessings and love, still warm from the oven, slathered with sweet cream lightly salted dairy butter - one of the great pleasures of life. Nothin' like it.
So go bless someone and make some bread!
In Light and Love,