It’s an interesting thing. I enjoy cooking, but I used to be intimidated by bread. Something about it was mysterious and unattainable. But recently I bought some yeast packets and decided to have a go. My first attempt was rather dense and lumpy, not attractive to the eye or the palate, you know, like the crust of a cobbler or something. I resolved to learn and make a better bread. I figure why not. I have tons of flour left over from a semi-crazed, mildly alarmist trip to Costco with tax refund money earlier this year. But that’s a story for another blog.
So I set to work. The next loaf I made was far too sweet. I used a recipe that called for risky amounts of white sugar, and I was right to be afraid. It was no good.
The next loaf needed more salt. Mainly this was because I totally ran out of salt while making it. Plus I was out of money to actually go and buy salt, coincidentally, so there it is. The result was a nicely shaped but bland tasting loaf of bread.
The thing about bread is that it’s equal parts art and science. There’s a lot of mysterious action going on in there with the salt and the sugars and the yeast and the wheat and the water. The yeast needs moisture and warmth and sugar and starch (the endosperm of the wheat grain) in order to come alive and make bread possible. The balancing act that holds it together is the vital wheat gluten, which makes everything stretchy. I think I heard somewhere that the wheat genome is six times longer than the human genome, and though it’s been the world’s staple food for all recorded history, we’re still learning and being surprised by it. Adding to this mystery, bread’s final beauty and structure depend greatly on how the bread maker crafts it, the time he takes to allow all that science and art to intermingle. It can be a danse macabre at times, especially if you’re just learning like me.
I’ve taken to using equal parts (speaking of equal parts) yeast, salt, and dark brown cane sugar. I then add purified water at 120 degrees F with a little of my secret ingredient stirred in and dissolved in the warm water. I use quick rise yeast, but I allow the yeast twice the normal time to proof, to mature, to live, to make a nice foamy liquid. The sugars that I use are not highly refined, so it needs this extra time, I think.
Then when I mix in the flour (I’m not using bread flour, but all-purpose flour), I leave the dough a little wet and sticky, and this too is on purpose. I think it makes for a more moist loaf of bread at the finish that’s not quite as dense as some of my earlier attempts. It’s still hearty though, trust me. It’s not like that storebought crap.
I’ve found one of the key steps in bread making is the penultimate stage, where the dough has had a chance to rise into a ball and the bread maker pounds it down and flattens it. I lightly flour a cookie sheet and turn the ball of dough onto it, flouring the top of the dough as well. Then with my fists, I gently flatten it out into a rectangle roughly the shape of the cookie sheet. The shorter side of the rectangular shape is almost the exact same dimension as the length of my glass bread pans, so when I roll it into a loaf it fits in there perfectly. I use canola oil on the bread pan so that my bread will let go of it when it’s all done.
If anyone wants the specific recipe, post up a comment. I just may publish it if enough people are interested. This bread is really good; it has only six ingredients. Good luck finding anything like that at the store. I’ve found that it doesn’t even need butter. It’s great straight out of the oven, steaming, soft, sturdy, with a light crust and a rich taste that is suitable for savory (eggs on toast, anyone?) or sweet (jelly toast!) applications. But if you store the loaf in the bread pan on the counter and cover it (after it’s cool) it will last for days. I think it’s probably like good marinara, or chili, or soup—it tastes better with every passing day. You’ll be lucky if this lasts to the third day though. It’ll be gone before then.
I’ve also started to work on variations on this bread. I just did a cinnamon-sugar swirl loaf the other day that was ridiculous, but I can make it better. I want to try a garlic cheddar version too. Anyone else have any ideas?