Baking Bread

People ask me all the time what is my favorite thing to bake.  Whoa, that is a tough one.  I used to have to take pause and ponder this one. I love to make pastries.  I love to bake pies and tarts.  I think it is the crust and then making it so pretty on the outside.  Cupcakes, although fun, do not fill my personal creative side.  Cookies are great, who doesn't love them, but not a creative endeavor. After all, aren't all chefs artists in food? But after all that pausing and pondering, I have finally decided that my very, very favorite thing to bake is bread.

Bread has gotten such a bum rap lately, and it is not fair.  Store bought bread has extra gluten added to it to make it so high.  That is why Wonder Bread looks like it does.  But artisan bread and homemade bread is good for you.  No one in Europe would ever dream of going with out bread.  The gluten free trend, unless one has celiac disease, would be thought of as ridiculous.  Because their bread (and your homemade bread you are going to make after reading this) has only natural gluten.  The problem is

not

with the gluten, and I mean this with homemade bread,  it is with the

amount of bread we eat

.  I like Subway and Panerra as much as the next girl, but it is too much bread for one sandwich! And I am sure they add all kinds of things to make that bread mold slower than homemade and also to protect it from molding during shipping.

Bread has everything going for it.  No wonder people have included it in poems, portraits, photos and the like.  It is one of the oldest foods.   It has protein too.  Most modern civilizations --and ancient ones- have had some form of bread as the staple of their meal.  The phrase, breaking bread, does not necessarily mean actually breaking apart a loaf of wheat bread, but the whole idea of eating together.  Of course, you know that, but the fact that they used the word bread instead of slurping soup or eating fowl or whatever is a testament to the importance of this food item. 

There are so many kinds of bread from all the cultures.  Each so unique.  My mouth waters thinking of them all.  Most of them have stories behind them, like the history of the croissant, manna from heaven, etc, but probably my favorite is the story of the Italians.  Italian bread is one of the least saltiest breads of the major breads around.  Why?  Long ago, when all the building was going gangbusters during the Renaissance, the workmen were tiling those amazing roofs like crazy.  It is very hot, as you know, in Italy, but I cannot imagine how hot on those roofs. So when they got their breaks, they would eat their lunches of bread and wine, eat the bread and polish it off with lots of wine, and drink more much wine because they were so dehydrated, then climb back up to the top to continue working, and some would lose their balance and.... fall  to their death!  Water was not as big back then, clean water was not so easy to get, but wine was plentiful.   This problem of dying roof tilers was becoming a real problem, so the Pope decreed that salt could no longer be put into bread to help keep the men from drinking too much and getting smashed during their breaks.  (That crazy Pope. He wouldn't want to decree not to drink wine at work, now would he?  After all, it was Italy!)

Many people I know make wonderful, wonderful bread.  But most people I know are a bit afraid of baking bread.  The yeast thing scares them.  The whole, don't do this or that or it will kill your yeast and determining the correct temperature of the water is too scary.  Kneading?  How long? Some doughs are supposed to be soft, some rougher.  And baking with  whole wheat-YIKES! But it does not have to be that way.  I am here to dispel those buzz-killing rumors right now!  Here are my time-honored tips for great bread.

 1. The temperature of the water you put your yeast in should be coolish.  Not cold, but NOT hot.  Don't worry about this baby's bath thing.  Just feel it and if it is more cool than warm, it is perfect. ( It is really too cool for any baby who I have had....)

 2. Add  bit more yeast than the recipe calls for to assure a nice rise.  If it says 2 t., make it 3.

 3. Like Julia Child says, add a teaspoon or so of sugar into your yeast mixture to make sure it is active.  That way, you will know if you have a problem  before you add it to your flour and you will not waste all that time!

The yeast will feed on the sugar, causing it to rise so you can see it.  see how high and foamy it gets?

    A. Many recipes have you adding your yeast right into the flour, then putting the liquid on top.  We often did this at LCB, but that yeast  was  really fresh.  In my kitchen here, I always change the recipe a tad and add my yeast to 1/4 cup of the liquid first to make sure it is good. You do not have to do this, but I want to be sure it is viable.  HOWEVER, if you go ahead and combine it with the dry ingredients, you  CANNOT just dump the salt in!  Salt will kill the unrisen yeast.  Salt and yeast must be separated until the yeast has had a chance to become active. You can easily separate it by the flour.  Just add the salt on top of the flour.

 4. Some breads call for rising in the refrigerator.  That is usually because it is a wetter dough due to a high egg content or milk, etc...and the yeast needs    time to bond around that protein.  Believe me, it will rise in the refrigerator. If the recipe says to do it this way, do it this way.

 5. Kneading dough is very sensuous.  The smell and the feel of the dough is wonderful.  Your dough should feel soft like a baby's behind. Hmmmmm, all these references to babies.  Weird, huh?  However, if you are doing a rustic dough, or course you will feel all the lumps of your nuts or olives.  Whole  grain dough will also be a bit rougher, but it should still be pliable.

 6. Now that most people have kitchen aid mixers, making bread has never been easier.  You need one that is at least a 6 qt or you will burn up the motor of the mixer!!!!  Remember this if you are out to buy one.  If you are using your wonderful machine, the dough should gather around the dough hook and form a sort of ball.  You feel it and if it is nice and soft, like you know who's you know what, it is ready.  Wrap it saran wrap to keep it moist, cover and let it rise. 

Now I will pull off the wrap and the dough will fall.  That is normal.  It will rise again, but probably not as high. Some recipes call for shaping it now, then letting it rise or just briefly rest in its shape form, some will have you do this whole rising thing again.

 7. When you are checking it to see if it has risen enough, make sure it is nice and big, then touch it gently with two fingers.  If it leaves a soft  indentation, it is ready.

See how the finger marks stay a bit?  This dough is finished with its first rising.

 8. Lastly, keep your yeast in the fridge.  Yeast is a live organism and so it will perish.  Throw it out after 6 months and get new, even if the date is okay.  You do not want to go to all the trouble of making your masterpiece with half viable yeast, do you?

Tomorrow I will post an easy bread recipe.  Please let me know how your bread baking is going!