On Bread

I don’t think for a minute that anything I have to say about making bread is more insightful or original or important than what has been said for centuries. But this blog is largely about things I love (and consequently, love to share), and making bread for me is both entertainment and fascination. Plus, it is a pastime that produces an edible result!

Some form of bread has been the staff of life for thousands of years. It happily crosses one cultural chasm after another, so that one person’s naan is another’s matzoh is another’s communion wafer. Every French village by law still has to have its own boulangerie. Challah is the same sweet, egg-y dough as Pane di Pasqua. Chapati and other flatbreads can be found throughout Africa and Asia. All of this has been accomplished, by the way, without preservatives, artificial flavoring, dough enhancers, or that squishiness that sticks to your teeth.

I started making bread in roughly 1970—in an earlier wave of the organic movement spurred by writers like Adele Davis and Francis Moore Lappé and the Rodales. I was still a relatively inexperienced cook, but yeast didn’t intimidate me. I had helped my mother make cloverleaf rolls for company and pizza dough for my high school friends, so I had at least some knowledge of how yeast behaves. Several of my friends were also experimenting with bread at the time; they sent me recipes that I tried with decent success. My only failure, as I recall, was my first (and so far only) attempt at a baguette, the recipe taken from The New York Times Cookbook. I set it to rise and, thinking the more rise time the better, went to the movies. I baked it when I returned three hours later, and it was as hard as Yogi Berra’s bat.

After the kids came along, I graduated to “No Excuse Bread” from the LaLeche League cookbook; it’s a nutrition-rich overnight refrigerator rise that I still use to this day (see the recipe below—you will love it, and you can vary the flours). I began making Pane di Pasqua—Easter bread—on Holy Saturday. It continues a prized Italian tradition and makes a beautiful centerpiece for the Easter Sunday table.

Inspired by my daughter and my cousin Dorothy, I began experimenting with a sourdough starter when we came back from New England last fall. The sourdough lives in my fridge save for when I am feeding it, when the crock sits on my counter as the yeast grows frothy and pungent on the counter. Thus far, I have only made the King Arthur Flour (more about KAF in the future) recipe for s simple rustic white loaf. It has the taste and texture of what I like to call “Italian restaurant bread”— a delightful taste memory from the Italian “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants of my childhood, a few of which still exist in small-city neighborhoods of modest means.

Getting your hands in warm, gooey bread dough is something you have to experience to appreciate. It is, for me, the most therapeutic of kitchen endeavors. Watching it rise in the bread bucket is thrilling. The aroma of baking bread, for my money, is one of the most inviting on the planet. And what surpasses the taste of bread, almost any kind, still warm from the oven, slathered with good butter? If you haven’t tried making your own, you really should.

Here’s my La Leche League cookbook standby:
2 pkgs. yeast (I use only SAF instant yeast from King Arthur—1 packet = 2-1/4 teaspoons)
2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. oil or butter
1/3 c. honey or sugar  (I prefer honey)
2/3 c. powdered milk
2 eggs
1 c. wheat germ
2 c. warm water
7 c. unsifted flour (you can mix unbleached white with 100% whole wheat, white whole wheat, or sprouted wheat–i use ONLY King Arthur flours)

Have all ingredients at room temperature or slightly warmer. Put first 8 ingredients, plus 3 cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl. Beat 5 to 10 minutes at medium on mixer. By hand, stir in 2 cups of flour, no need to make it smooth. Sprinkle 1 cup flour in 10 inch diameter on kneading surface.Turn out dough, oil hands and knead only with fingertips until dough stiffens. Knead 5 to 10 minutes more until smooth. Add flour as needed. Cover with plastic wrap and towel. Let rest for 20 minutes. Punch down and knead a few strokes. Divide into 2 equal portions.

On oiled surface, with oiled rolling pin, roll dough to 8×12 inch rectangle. Roll small end towards you jelly roll fashion. Seal well. Place seam side down in greased bread pans or form rolls and place in greased pan. Brush with oil; cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 2 to 24 hours. (I make it in the evening after dinner and bake it the next morning. I usually freeze the second loaf.)

Note: I love this recipe so much that, out of curiosity, I googled  the woman who contributed it to the La Leche League book. I found that she had passed away—no surprise—but she definitely seemed like someone I’d have liked!

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