Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bread: A RecipEssay

i truly enjoy making bread.  it is a multifaceted experience--practical, sensual, logical, tactile, scientific, spontaneous.  the process is one of the most ancient of human undertakings, largely unchanged for millenia.  it connects us to our most primitive cultural and genetic roots, our most original mothers.

the activity of yeast and its starring role in bread production could have been one of our earliest scientific observations, perhaps coinciding with the mastery of agriculture.  in indoeuropean and semitic languages, bread is often a synecdoche representing food in general; many eastern languages use rice in the same idiom. it is often one of the oldest words in any language.  its presence or absence has defined historical eras and religious beliefs.   and you can make it in your VERY OWN KITCHEN, and it can make you very popular.  it is a delicious cornerstone of pantemporary human experience.

i have made quite a few different kinds of bread over the years (it was a procrastination hobby in college), but this is my favorite recipe.  it is, by no means, especially healthy.  however, bread you make yourself out of ingredients you have collected is always better for you than grocery store processed white bread.  i use unbleached flour and eggs from my chickens, but this is not whole wheat chewy hard healthy-seeming bread with bits in it (although i love that kind too).   this bread has a tender crumb and keeps well, because it has a fair amount of fat (dairy) in it.  it has a sourdough-esque tang from the Secret Ingredient, and the crust is crusty but yielding.  so far i've made it into rolls, a loaf, and a braid, and they've all worked beautifully.  i think this is definitely my forever bread recipe.

 it all begins with yeast.  i use the only kind of yeast i've ever seen or bought, fleischmann's, the kind in the little yellow pouch.  just get the regular active kind, not the super extra plus kind or anything that promises faster rises.  clip a corner off the pouch and pour that yeast into a big glass bowl (or whatever you're going to use to mix everything up).

pour about 3 tablespoons of warm tapwater over the yeast.  you want the water to be pretty warm, but not so hot you pull your finger away.  that's a good rule of....finger?  anyway, swirl the yeast and water together a bit. bubbles will start to rise as the yeast dissolves.  breathe in that earthy, ancient aroma and give thanks for microscopic organisms.

next, fill a 2-cup measuring cup with 1 cup of water.  drop 3 tablespoons of butter in the water, and pop it in the microwave (or  melt it on the stove).  heat until the butter starts to melt in the water, then take it out and swirl the cup around until you've got some warm butterwater.

now it's time for the Secret Ingredient!  get out some YOGURT.  i have been using Nancy's Organic Whole Milk Plain Yogurt, but you could use any ol' kind of yogurt. in fact, the idea of using different flavors of yogurt is kind of exciting, but i haven't tried that yet.  (i double dog dare all y'all to.) anyway, get out some yogurt.  and glop'n'stir enough of it into the butterwater that you have about 2 cups of liquid.  that. is. the stuff.

next: add your yogurtbutterwater (in fake german: yøgenbütterwasser!) to your original yeastwater. mix it all up.  it will be quite soupy and pale and tepid.  now, the following ingredients can be added in larger or smaller amounts, depending on your desires and goals:
--2-3 tablespoons sugar (or not, or more, if you're looking for supersweet rolls or something)
--1-1.5 teaspoon salt (recommended)
--1 small glug olive oil (if making a large loaf/braid)
--1 small egg, beaten lightly (recommended for braid/rolls)

stir all this up together.  incidentally, i think using a regular ol' fork is the best utensil for stirring bread dough up.  which becomes very important at this point, for now we will be adding flour!

gradually add about 2 cups of flour to your mix in the bowl. by 'gradually' i mean, dump some flour in, stir it up, dump some more in, stir it up, repeat.  don't be obsessive about any aspect of this process; this is a meditation, a creation moment--it should only be fun!  the dough should be getting less soupy, but you aren't ready to grab it yet.  

now, while keeping vague track of how much total flour you're using, start adding and mixing more until it starts getting quite stiff and you're tired of using the fork.  this will be around 3-3.5 cups of flour.  at that point, it's time to take the rings off, put the fork down, and get down to that most sensuous of culinary rituals: the kneading of the bread.

i recommend doing it right there in the bowl.  you could flour the countertop and turn it out on there, but i hate cleaning flour off countertops. grab a handful of flour and start scraping the edges of the dough toward the middle of the bowl.  collect it into a ball, grabbing bits of flour to aid in the scraping and gathering process.  start to gently press and pat the flour into the ball.  at this point, the dough is soft and your fingers are beginning to get sticky with dough.  keep grabbing and adding and massaging that flour in, a bit at a time, pausing now and then to vigorously rub your hands together to get all the doughbits off.  work it gently together until you can pick the whole thing up as a mass.

now the time for tenderness is over.  roughly squash that dough into the bottom of the bowl, sieze it up, and throw it back in!  fold it over on itself and punch it down. pick it up.  hurl it into the bowl, add a bit more flour, and keep hurling and squashing.  this is a great time to remember your frustrations and knead them out of you into your dough and let them bake off into the universe.  add, hurl, and squash until the dough is moist and elastic, and no longer sticky.  at this point your fingers should be staying pretty clean.  the dough has miraculously gone from soupy soup to a coherent ball with its own tensile strength. and now it's time to rise!

i like one bowl bread, so this is my method: get a piece of saran wrap that would loosely fit over the top of your mixing bowl.  carefully lay it on the counter.  brush it lightly with olive oil, or give it a split second cooking spray spray.  plop your beautiful dough ball right on top of it, and let it sit there while you wash out your mixing-about-to-be-rising bowl.  make sure to get all the gunk out of it.

 dry your rising bowl thoroughly and brush it lightly with olive oil or give it a split second cooking spray spray. pick up your doughball and put it in the oiled bowl, making sure it has a light coating of oil itself (from the saran wrap and bowl is usually sufficient).  now put the saran wrap, oil side down, loosely over the top of the bowl.  put the bowl in a warmish place (the dormant microwave works for me), where the yeast can have some privacy.  it is their living process that causes the miracle of bread. 

(yes, it is because the yeast eat sugars and fart carbon dioxide that bread rises.  but  that's totally amazing!  would that our farts were so productive!)

okay, now go do something else for an hour.  read. exercise. piddle.  when you come back, you will see the great miracle!  Your Bread Is Risen!

and it shall rise again. but now you will shape it.  first, sadly, you must punch it down.  it deflates from its fluffy glory with a big dent in the middle.

scrape it back into a ball and give it some more kneads.  not for too long, and not so strenuously as before; just to bring it back together, squish out air bubbles and make it all smooth.  

at this point, you have some options. 12 rolls? 1 'normal' loaf? 1 large braided loaf? this is where it becomes a choose-your-own adventure!

ROLLS: oil or lightly spray a baking sheet.  pick up your doughball and divide it into 12 approximately equal pieces.  form each little ball into a plump, longish oval (oblong?). line them up next to each other about 1/2 inch apart.  the idea here is to let them rise into each other and bake snuggled up, so that you can RIP THEM APART at dinner BWAHAHAHAAA.  anyway, once they're shaped and lined up, let them rise until they've doubled in size, 30 minutes to 1 hour.  you can also put it in the fridge to rise slowly (2-3 hours) and save for later.

LOAF: if you use the full-on 2 cups of liquid and 3.5 cups flour as suggested above, you will get a REALLY BIG LOAF. like, one that threatens to spill out of the loaf pan you've prepared before it's even finished rising, to the point where you frantically throw it in the fridge to retard its ballooning and build an emergency support structure out of foil.  lesson: if you're planning to use a loaf pan, don't use the egg, reduce the water/butter/yogurt proportions until they total about 1 1/2-1 3/4 cups of fluid, and you won't use as much flour.  and your loaf should behave predictably.

anyway, lightly oil or spray a loaf pan!  now, grab your doughball, and manipulate it with both hands until it's kind of flat and feasibly foldable.  fold an outer edge toward the middle, and fold the other outer edge on top.  sort of a combination of folding and rolling here....hard to describe, but obvious if you're there.  that will make a seam, and this is the loaf bottom.  pinch and squish both loaf ends toward the center of the bottom seam so that the ends are rounded, and plop the whole thing seam side down in the loaf pan.  put it someplace warm and let it rise until it has doubled in size, 30 minutes to 1 hour.  you can also put it in the fridge to rise slowly (2-3 hours) and save for later.


BRAID: my favorite!  in this case i do recommend using the full amount of liquid and dry ingredients, egg and all.  you want a nice big floofy loaf.
lightly oil/spray a baking sheet.  divide your doughballs into 3 equalish pieces.  form them into their own independent balls and let them sit for about 10 minutes.

then, grab each ball and gently stretch them into three nice long snakes.  'stretch' is a weird word for this.  it's more like you're guiding gravity to pull them into the snakes, letting them kind of loosely fall through your hands.  like those weird water tube toys in curiosity stores?  anyway.  guess what you do next!

you braid it!  start in the middle, and gently pull the bottom snake over the middle snake, allowing it to become the new middle snake.  pull the top snake over the new middle snake, allowing IT to become the new middle snake, etc. when you get to the ends, pinch them together and tuck 'em under.  on the other side, do the opposite...pull the outer snakes UNDER the middle snake.  and you get a lovely braided loaf!  put it someplace warm to rise until it's almost double in size, about 30 minutes-1 hour.  
you can also put it in the fridge to rise slowly (2-3 hours) and save for later.


...are finally ready to bake!  for all the previous methods of shaping, the next part is the same.  preheat the oven to 375.  marvel at the second rising of the yeast.  to be extra fancy, this is the time to apply some kind of wash to the bread, which is optional but adds a tiny bit more flavor and pretty bakery color.  sometimes i like to brush the bread with melted butter or milk, or even buttermilk from the butter i made the other day! a grind of course seasalt is nice at this point as well.

put your opus in the oven for 35-45 minutes (less for rolls, more for braid or oversize loaf).  you barely have to keep an eye on can tell it's done by the smell.  and also by tapping the loaf (carefully!) on the underside--bread has this odd way of sounding hollow when it's done.

NOW THIS NEXT PART IS VERY IMPORTANT.  resist the urge to devour it straight out of the oven.  we have a cultural myth that fresh-baked bread just barely snatched from the heat  is the highest way to enjoy it.  NOT TRUE!  bread is better after it sits for at least 30 minutes and has gotten to the temperature where it's still kind of warm, but is not radiating heat.  so WAIT. (when the bread is no longer radiating any heat at all, that's a good time to store it in wax paper or a paper bag or even a plastic bag.  the latter will soften the crust, and it is a plastic bag, but it will keep the bread fresh longer.)

after you have kept a respectful distance and let it cool a bit, slice it with a serrated knife.  have some preserves or butter handy, or honey, even better.  or none of these.  share it with someone and sink your teeth in at the same time.  make sandwiches.  dip it in stuff.  eat it with cheese and wine.  impress your friends with your baking prowess.

and more importantly,  rejoice in this most literal of ancestor worship practices.  you beautiful human!  you have made bread!

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