Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Getting Started in Bread


I’ve not included a recipe for a while, so I’m thinking I should make a couple available.

I went on a grocery store run yesterday and was flabbergasted when I saw the price for five pounds of my favorite King Arthur Flour is now around four dollars. I’m glad a stocked up a few weeks ago when it was about fifty cents less! right now, I’m going to sit tight and try not to use up what I have too much and hope things go on sale in a month or so. If not, I always have the prairie gold bread flour that they sell down at the Amish store I can fall back on, and I actually use very little wheat flour for bread baking.

I got into bread about ten years ago. After I got out of college, I kind of went through a phase that I really haven’t kicked yet. (Maybe not a phase, then?) I learned how to knit and spin and took up a lot of hand crafts. At the time, I was working in the deli of a grocery store . That’s where I learned to decorate cakes which is really cool, because I got paid to go to work and learn from the touring cake expert lady and learned how to do all the Wilton-style decorations. It’s come in really handy, since I only worked in the grocery store a year, but I’ve done everything from big cakes for my sister’s wedding and every birthday cake for my family for a long, long time. I even made my own cake a couple years ago, because I wanted orange chocolate cheesecake for my birthday cake, and no one else was going to make the candied orange peel or bake the orange shortbread cookies for the crust or anything like that. I give little “cake decorating clinics” for one of my cousins when she comes to visit since she is actually going to be a real artist but she likes to play with cake frosting. One of my sister’s friends from high school went to school for graphic design and actually makes decent money on the side with cakes.

I’m the worst business person in the world, and I haven’t yet made a cent from cake. I just don’t see how to do it. Just last night, I saw a report on the news about a stay-at-home mom who has a cake making business right in her kitchen. Then, I saw another one about this woman who has a commercial monkey bread business, supposedly right in her kitchen. Now, I’ve worked in commercial kitchens before, and I don’t understand why these ladies don’t get the health department knocking on their door after they go on TV. They have kids just running through the kitchen. No one has their hair up. There’s no thermometers or separate storage. All I can conclude is that they live in states that aren’t Pennsylvania and/or these cheery little pieces of propaganda really aren’t telling the (whole) truth. For goodness sakes. I’ve seen people writing up the Amish kids who do their family’s bake sale by the side of the road every week.

Anyway, to make a long story even longer, I was slightly horrified to find out the way bakery bread is made in the store. Those nice loaves that you pay extra for are just about the same thing that comes in the bags. The loaves are just frozen and shipped to the store and baked in the bakery. There isn’t anything about them that is any more “handmade” than Wonder bread.

I made bread a few times when I was a kid, of course. And those frozen loaves you can get in the freezer section of the grocery store are a good shortcut for making pizza. I seem to remember one very cash strapped weekend away from home where the sum total of my food was some carrots and a couple loaves of frozen dough that I baked up, but there may have been some chocolate involved, too. I also remember being horrified when I was working as a camp counselor at Camp Evil in the the Adirondacks. We had all this special camping cookware to make PIZZA IN THE WILDERNESS, but no one knew how to knead the dough. That’s what I hate about rich people. I grew up literally on the Allegheny River. I’ve been on the water my whole life, and I can canoe for miles, catch a fish (with my bare hands if I want to), hike through woods with nothing and not get lost. I’ve been stranded on an island in high water, helped a friend with a severely broken arm hike miles back to the house in zero degree weather, and at Camp Evil, I looked stupid and incompetent, because I didn’t know any of the secret handshake stuff from the Official Canoeing Manual the Official First Aid Manual the Official Directions for the really expensive junk I can afford that they advertise in Outside Magazine. Needless to say, that’s just one of many work experiences which was way more awful than what I signed up for. And the Adirondacks are not prettier than the Upper Allegheny area.

Back to bread!

While I was working at the grocery store, I decided to start baking bread, and I have done ever since (except for one miserable stretch of time when I baked nothing because my filthy neighbors had our apartment infested with bugs!)

What you need to start baking bread, in terms of stuff:

2 bowls
a good spoon
bread pans (at least two, three is better)
an oven

The bowls should be the size of a large mixing bowl at the smallest. A high sided bowl like a mixing bowl is great for letting bread rise. You can get them at thrift stores and junk shops. Bowls can be metal, plastic, glass, wood. Doesn’t matter. You can even just have one bowl and wash it in between or let the bread rise in a basket lined with a clean floured tea towel (no terry cloth, though! It makes a mess.) The oven has to be able to get up to 350 degrees. Bread loaf pans come in many sizes, and I recommend medium because the loaves fit in the 11.5x 12.5 inch bags that they sell at the store for bread bags. You don’t need anything fancy. Grey painted metal loaf pans like they have at the dollar store or K Mart. Don’t get anything heavy, fancy or anything that costs double digits. Junk stores are great! I use a hand carved cherry wooden spoon for my bread spoon. I destroy wooden spoons, but I’ve had this one for years. Spoons are not a splurge. You can’t make bread in a mixer unless you have a commercial dough machine. Your wooden spoon replaces a very expensive piece of equipment. You can afford to get a heavy one.

When I first started baking bread, I made the mistake of rushing out and buying a bunch of whole wheat flour and all these ingredients. I made a few bricks before I started looking for the basic beginner recipes and learning on those. Start with white bread. It’s nice, it’s fun, it’s still better for you than store bought.

If I had five seconds to get out of my house and could take only one cook book, I would bring my 1969 Betty Crocker. I have other cookbooks, but Betty is the go to book for everything basic and good. I get more people who ask me for my recipes when I use Betty than any other thing. Everything is covered and it’s the best book ever. I don’t know about these contemporary and revised cook books. Try libraries and used book sales and estate sales and things like that, but the older books are better.

Basic steps of making bread:

1. Mixing: Getting all ingredients together.
2. Kneading: working the dough to finish combining ingredients and to break up the gluten in the flour so the bread will rise and be airy.
3. First rising: in a big lump in a bowl (usually about an hour)
4. Shaping: Cutting the big lump into loaves or rolls
5. Second rising: bread rises again in final shape
6. Baking

Betty Crocker White bread is as easy a loaf as you could want to make, and tastes good too. The original recipe calls for the bread to be panned in two large loaf pans, but I pefer to cut it into three medium sized loaves instead.

White Bread

2 packages Active dry Yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 2/3 cups warm water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons shortening
9 to 10 cups All Purpose Flour
Soft butter or margarine

Dissolve yeast in 3/4 C H2O, add 2 2/3 c. water plus the salt, sugar, shortening, and five cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add flour gradually to make dough easy to handle.

Turn dough onto lightly floured board. Knead until smooth and elastic, 10 minutes. pull it into a ball shape, and place in greased bowl in a warm place until doubled. (about an hour)

Punch down the dough. Use your fist to smash down the middle, and pull outsides of dough down through the hollow -- try and get rid of all air bubbles.

Put dough back on lightly floured counter, cut into loaves - two large or three medium. Roll dough out into a flat oval about half again as long as the pan. Fold in sides and pinch a seam in the middle. Tuck in ends and pinch closed. Put in greased loaf pans, seam side down.

Brush tops with butter and let rise until doubled.

Near end of rising, heat over in 425 degrees. Get racks as low as you can. Bake 30 to 35 minutes (I usually turn the loaves at 10 minutes for even heating) until golden brown. Loaves that are done sound hollow when you tap the bottom crust.

Turn the loaves out of the pans immediately. Paint the tops with more melted butter. Let cool before eating.

A couple notes: Active dry yeast in packages is ridiculously expensive. If you plan to make more than five batches of bread in a six month period, you should buy bulk yeast and keep it in a jar in the vegetable crisper in the fridge instead. Don’t freeze it. One package of ADY is 2 and 1/4 teaspoons. If it’s in bulk, you might have to do a little math.

The step at the beginning of the recipe where you dissolve the yeast (also called proofing) is kind of an old fashioned thing. You let a the yeast foam up a little in the warm water to make sure it is viable before you go through all the trouble of baking bread. Also, the water temperatures in old recipes are a little more strict than they need to be. Very hot water will kill yeast, but they are a little more durable and reliable now.

I also hardly ever make any recipes that call for two packages of yeast. If you have that much yeast, the bread rises a lot faster, but the cost of the bread goes up. You can get by with just one in almost every recipe.

This recipe calls for just all purpose flour. I wouldn’t do that with cheap or store brand flour, though. Really, even with costs going up, you need less of better flour to get the same results, so better flour is more economical.
Kneading is actually a matter of personal preference. You can twist or hit or slam the bread. I got my nephew to knead for me once by just letting him wrestle and punch the dough for a while. The accepted method is “push-turn-fold”. You take the ball, and push down and away with the heel of your hand, it makes kind of a flattened oblong. then, you pick up the dough and bring it back close with the long way pointing at you. Fold it back into a ball shape. Repeat.

For white yeast bread with fat, I usually knead about eight minutes, even though this recipe says ten. There is some scientific thing about chemically what happens inside the bread that is based on time, though, so no skimping on the kneading! For sourdough and French type bread that don’t have any fat and which use high gluten flours, kneading times can be as long as fifteen minutes, which is another reason why it is better to start with boring old white bread and not try and bite off more than you can chew.

A friend of mine who pays attention to all those things that “they” say, says that eating hot bread is bad for you. She also says that “they” will buy burdock roots. I thought that meant that she was going to dig them up and sell them, so I left them in the ground and got an extra large bunch of sticktites on my dogs and in my clothes a couple years ago. So, there is a cooking process that still is taking place inside the crusts when you bring the bread out of the oven, and slicing pieces of warm bread kind of squishes the loaf, but hot bread out of the oven is really nice.

Obviously, I haven’t just been baking Betty Crocker white bread for the last fifteen years, so there will be more on other kinds of bread later. To be continued....

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