Guest Post: Good But Not Perfect Home Baked Bread
Aha! Enter the era of a new feature: the Church Avenue Chomp guest post.
There are a few writers or people with extreme passions I admire who will be writing guest blog entries. Today we see the work of an old friend, Heather, who spent the long and challenging upstate NY winter baking every kind of bread there is. Focaccia, she’d do. Irish soda bread. She’s gotten really good, and if you haven’t starting baking your own bread yet, she’s going to remove all barriers for you in this post.
You’ll also learn about a few of her other skills.
Good But Not Perfect Home Baked Bread
The most important secret of home baked bread: how to begin.
Back when I was in my early 20s, I thought it would be a fantastic thing to be able to make bread. Someone recommended the Tassajara Bread Book, a classic tome that explains how some Buddhists in California in the 1960s made bread—and who better to know how to fit bread baking into a busy lifestyle than people at a meditation center? So I put in an order at Book People, and waited for the book to come in.
And when it arrived, I read their “simple” method, and it didn’t seem all that simple. But I was dedicated, so I persevered. All I needed was a breadboard.
So I waited for a breadboard.
You may be wondering why I want to bake bread, and why I assume you might want to do the same. I guess I always wanted to be the kind of laid back Earth-mother-type who grows vegetables in her giant garden, then cans them for winter, and has 5 pets, and sleeps with her 6 kids in her bed, and wears the baby in a sling while she is milking the cow. And, that woman, of course, makes her own bread. Well, it turns out that I am not that person on any count. One could argue that I am learning to make bread in spite of what I really am like.
There’s also the fact that knowing how to do something like baking bread is empowering. This sort of skill just might come in handy after the collapse of civilization. I may not be an Earth-mother, but I am practical. I like to think I’m the kind of person the neighbors will be able to come to for amputations after the Apocalypse. I mean, in a pinch, I think I could do a better amputation than the average person, because I used to be a massage therapist and have cut up a lot of chickens: I know where the joints are. Of course, if anyone else wants to take a stab at the amputations, they are welcome to: I’m not saying I’m the best at amputations or anything, but I’d probably be better than average.
I seem to be getting slightly off topic. The most immediate reason for my determination to bake bread is that we have implemented Austerity Measures at our house, and a nice loaf of bread can be $4 when someone else bakes it.
My bread baking fantasy began in my early twenties. In my mind’s eye it was me in a perfectly clean apartment, with nothing on my To-Do list, with nothing hanging over my head, with my bills paid, dishes washed, neglected friends called. And I was serenely focused on making perfect, nutritious bread.
In retrospect, I see the insanity of this, but at the time, it just never felt like the right time to just jump in and make bread. In fact, Meredith and I were roommates during this era, and I actually went so far as to think to myself, “Once Meredith and I get our own apartments, THEN I will be able to make bread.” As though Meredith, who had a snapping social life, had nothing better to do than hang around the apartment interfering with my dream of baking bread.
Many years have passed, and some things have changed. I still crave to have my ducks in a row before starting something that is supposed to be fun, and I still dream of no To-Do list. But those goals, that were somehow out of reach for a single girl with no kids, are actually laughable now that I’m a parent. Being a parent twice over has taught me a number of things that, coincidentally, apply directly (ok, maybe indirectly) to bread baking.
Let me share these things with you.
- Begin Before You Are Ready. This means: don’t wait until you lose 12 pounds before you go to the gym. Don’t wait until you have 3 free hours before you call your friend to tell her you’re sorry her mom died. Don’t wait until you are free of all cares before you start the fun thing you really want to do. And don’t wait until the kitchen is clean before you try baking bread.
- Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good. This one means that if the choice is between spending 70 hours you don’t have making a gorgeous photo album with labels and everything in exactly the right order, or spending 4 hours getting the pictures from the box in the closet into albums on a bookshelf, you should definitely go with the latter, because the former is just not ever going to happen. At least, not to me. Maybe to you, but not to me.
- Set Expectations So Low That You Are Almost Guaranteed a Pleasant Surprise. I don’t think this one needs any explanation, but I find this one to be a sanity-saver now that I’m a parent.
So now I’m going to try to convince you to begin baking bread before you are ready, with the good-but-not-perfect bread recipe I am about to provide. The chances of success are very, very high, because we are defining success in this case as “producing something that is distinctly like a loaf of bread, and not like a cracker.” How’s that for low expectations?
This recipe requires no kneading and no breadboard. There will be no checking that the temperature of the water is just right so it won’t kill the yeast or put it to sleep. You’ll need no pen and pencil to backwards-induce the timing of the steps.
There is only measuring, stirring, and pouring, and not even much of that. The process is so easy, and, aside from the yeast (see the note at the end of this post), requires only things that you likely already have in your kitchen.
In the unlikely event that it does end up a cracker, you will be out about 20 minutes of your time and less than a dollar of your money. You can’t lose!
I combined this recipe by Mark Bittman et al, with my friend Jennifer’s variation for whole grain sandwich bread, and then simplified it in every way I could think of, and it still came out bread! Every time. And it was delicious. It may not be the most nutritious bread, and it may not be your favorite kind of bread, and sometimes it was, eh, slightly damp, but as stated above, the goal is just for it to be bread. Of course, the further goal is for you to like it enough to bake it a few times, and then start tweaking it, maybe making a whole grain version, with some potato starch in it for tenderness. Maybe add some flax meal. Or buttermilk powder. Or try the artisanal version at the link above that will amaze your guests when you tell them you made it yourself. Or try different timing of the steps, to find something that fits your schedule and makes bread you like. And before you know it, you and yeast will be pals, and you will be known for making bread, and everyone will want you to bring bread to their parties, and it will be awesome! But start here, now, with low expectations, and see how it goes.
Tonight, after dinner (or tomorrow morning before work), mix up some flour, salt, yeast, and water. Then, tomorrow, when you wake up in the morning (or tomorrow evening, after you get home from work), it should have turned from a sticky lump into something that looks like a very thick, bubbling liquid. Give it a mix, then 20 minutes later or whenever you get around to it, set the oven to 400. At the same time, butter or oil a loaf pan, and pour in the dough. Once the oven is preheated, stick the pan in. Go back in 45 minutes and see. It will be bread!
It will probably come out of the pan more easily if you let it cool just a little. Then, eat it up quick! Since it has no fat, it will get stale in a few days. It’s great for sandwiches, with soup, or just with a bunch of butter. YUM!!!!
Here it is again, with a few more details:
Put the flour, yeast, and salt in a mixing bowl and stir them to mix. Pour in 1 3/4 cups water. Stir to make a sticky lump. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave it on the counter.
8–12 hours later: Instead of the sticky lump it was, it should look like a bubbly liquid (but actually be pretty thick). Once it does, give it a good stir to pop the bubbles. Don’t worry too much about the timing. If something comes up schedule-wise, just stir it and let it sit for longer. Or shorter. It will probably still be worth eating.
20 minutes to an hour or more later: Butter or oil a normal-size loaf pan and pour and scrape in the dough. Let it sit while you preheat the oven to 400.
Bake for 45 minutes.
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon instant yeast or ½ tsp active dry yeast*
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups water
Butter or oil for greasing the pan
*Yeast is something you may not have in your kitchen, or, if you do, you may not know how old it is or if it’s fresh enough to use. So you may need to buy some. You can buy it in bulk in some stores, or in a jar, or in a packet. You can decide what seems most economical to you, based on how likely you think it is that you will bake more than one loaf.
There are different kinds of yeast, and different brands may call the same kind by different names. For this recipe, you want either “instant” (also called “rapid-rise” or “bread machine”) or “active dry.” Either will work, and none of it needs to be “proofed,” but you may want to vary the amount you use, depending on which kind you have and how long you are going to let it sit. ¼ teaspoon instant yeast for 8 hours of sitting should work, but if you have Active Dry, try ½ teaspoon instead. If you’re going to let it sit for 12 hours or more, you could probably use ¼ teaspoon of either kind.
For further yeast disambiguation: http://allrecipes.com//HowTo/yeast-the-basics/Detail.aspx