Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baking Bread

I grew up with the smell of home baked bread wafting from the kitchen more often than not, and I hope my children will say the same. I love baking bread. Yes, it tastes good. But even more than that, I love the feel of kneading dough with my palms, the sweet smell of the yeast as it works its magic, and the satisfaction of punching down a well risen dough. My mother, who taught me everything I know about bread baking, once told me that when she kneads bread, she feels connected to all the women who have baked for centuries before us.

When we share bread I've baked, I am often asked if I used a breadmaker, and treated with amazement when people learn I've made it from scratch. I can understand, because I was a little daunted the first time I made bread away from the helpful gaze of my experienced mother . What do you mean, let rise and then punch down? How do you know it has risen enough? Mix until the dough "comes together"? Knead until "smooth and elasticy"? How can I tell?

But really, it's a fairly easy process, I promise! The reason bread making is a lost art in many households is not because it requires a great deal of skill, but because it requires time and foresight, two things busy families don't always have in abundance. It's not tricky if you've done it once, and it doesn't take much effort, just time to let the dough rise. Make it on a Sunday afternoon, or a mid-week morning while you're juggling laundry and naptimes. I've let it rise too long, not quite long enough, punched it down a third time so I could run to the grocery store... let's just say bread can be pretty forgiving :)

Here's how you do it, with a classic white bread recipe that begs for your favorite jam. It's the first bread recipe my mother made, and the first one she taught me.

Dissolve 2 tablespoons yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in 1/2 cup warm water.

I use active dry yeast, which requires this step of dissolving the yeast in liquid for a few minutes to wake them up. You may also see instant yeast on the market; it doesn't need to be dissolved in liquid but can be mixed in directly with the dry ingredients. Rapid rise yeast, also marketed as bread machine yeast, takes the shortcut a step further by reducing rising time. I generally avoid it, since a slow rising process contributes to better tasting bread. Make sure the water is warm, but not too hot, or it could kill the yeast. Cold water won't dissolve and wake up the yeast as well as lukewarm water will.


• 3 cups warm water
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil
• 1/3 cup sugar
• 1 T salt
• 1 beaten egg
• 8-9 cups flour *start with 8, then add more gradually if the dough sticks too much to your hands during the kneading process

Mix in a bowl with a spoon until the dough starts to come together and becomes difficult to keep stirring. At this point it might look like a gooey mess that will never come together - that's ok! Dump it out onto your counter, it will all mix in to become beautiful and elasticy once you start kneading it.

Knead. Find an online video if this step makes you nervous, but I promise it's not only easy, it's fun. Just push the bread away from you with the heel of your palms and then turn it over. Do this repeatedly until the dough is all the same consistency, adding more flour if it's sticking to your hands each time you knead until it no longer does so.

Place the dough in a large bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise until it's approximately double in size. I usually check after about an hour, and then every half hour or so until it looks good. In the summer, sometimes an hour is enough, but in the winter it can take closer to two. A warm, non-drafty place is ideal. If the weather is very dry, moisten the cloth you're using to cover the bowl to keep the bread from drying out.

Once the bread has approximately doubled in size, punch it down. You'll hear a release of air and the bread will reduce in size. Let it rise again. I find that the second rise takes less time than the first. Knead lightly and form into 3 loaves. Allow to rise in 3 greased loaf pans while the oven preheats.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 min, then turn down to 325 and bake another 30 min or until loaves sound hollow. Butter top crusts and cool on wire rack. Great served with jam or butter, or sliced thick for egg in the hole the next day for breakfast!

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