Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bread and other yeasty things

Yeasty things
My daughter doesn’t eat store-bought white bread. As a small child, Kasey patently refused, and as she grew older, she would either choose wheat or whole grain bread or politely decline. She carried her preference right into adulthood, and for most of her married life, her family has eaten only homemade. The blame clearly lies with me, and it’s a blame I’ll take willingly, even proudly.
 Like so many other first-time mothers, when my daughter was born, I was determined to ensure that she ate the best that I could manage.  With a limited budget and plenty of time, I took to making much of what we ate from scratch, and that included the bread we used for toast, sandwiches, and along with our main dishes at the supper table.  Over the years I have learned to make everything from this light bread to bagels, the result of input from friends Bobbi and Toby who I knew from college and my days in Boston. It was all part of our efforts to eat healthy at a reasonable cost.
With a few exceptions, we have always been fortunate to have a large enough yard to grow most of the vegetables we ate, and we traded labor and skills – guitar lessons, barn building, sewing – for those we could or did not grow.  We raised chickens for eggs and turkeys for the table, and the small rural town in which we lived was populated by a handful of farmers from whom we bought milk and much of the meat we ate. There were orchards nearby where we could buy berries, apples, peaches and plums, and we spent long hours canning, pickling, jamming and jellying.  But bread and other baked goods, that was a different story.   There was a co-op that took orders from members once a month, and many of the dry goods we needed came organic from that, so making my own breads, pies, cookies, and cakes seemed natural. While sweets added to our diet, bread was more essential so I started there.  I never dreamed it would start a family tradition that Kasey would embrace. 
Bread is an essential part of the human food experience worldwide. Scientists have found evidence of bread – a paste-like concoction of grains and water, likely baked on hot stones – as part of the diet of populations living 30,000 years ago, and the craft has evolved over time, with bakers an essential part of every civilization. No matter the form, each culture has had some sort of bread.  Baking bread is simply a matter of finding the right combination of grains, liquid, leavening agents to produce food, so all the recipes for bread have common roots, but finding the right one for your family is essential.  
For daily bread, ease of preparation, flavor, and versatility is critical, and when I first began making bread, each batch was a matter of trial and error.  Some worked; some didn’t.
I tried sour dough, potato bread, salt-rising, and a multiple of others before I finally found an all-purpose dough that is perfect for everyday loaves, dinner and cinnamon rolls, and pizza dough.  The initial recipe came from Stillroom Cookery written by Grace Firth and published by EPM Publications in 1977, and I found it on the shelves of our tiny local library. It was a trove of practical cooking and making your own food, but more than anything else, it set the standard for my bread making, although I must admit it has been modified over the years.

Light Bread, as it is called and Firth identified as “the work horse, the everyday bread of many American homes” is not tremendously different than other white bread recipes that I have found over more than three decades of regular bread baking. I suspect it is the same basic dough that my great grandmother used for her bread baking, and the heady smell of the combined ingredients always brings me back to her kitchen was dominated with a large gas stove and a window lined with bright red geraniums. Although I have modified this recipe to suit my purpose over the years, the essentials, yeast, sugar, water, milk, oil, and flour, are unchanged.  It’s not a quick bread to make, taking five to six hours and lots of kneading, but it is well worth it.
Bread making was a Saturday morning activity, done along with the weekly laundry.  It is part of the process of homemaking.  With the first load of clothes and bedding sloshing around in the washer, I gathered the ingredients.

Into a large glass or ceramic bowl, never metal because it seems to slow the marriage of yeast and sugar, measure and combine with a wooden spoon:
1 package of yeast or 2-1/2 teaspoons bulk yeast
1 cup warm water, and
1 teaspoon sugar (or honey).

The mix would foam and bubble as warm water activated the yeast that then fed on the sugar.
Next add in three cups of room temperature milk, or three cups water to which a half cup of dried powered milk has been added.  Add:

4 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons sugar (or honey)
4 tablespoons canola oil

Mix together gently, and then stir in 10 cups of all-purpose flour, a couple cups at a time, and mix until well blended. Now turn onto a large floured bread board.  A dedicated bread board is well worth having as it serves a variety of baking purposes, but make sure you use it only for bread, and it is not essential. A clean counter top dusted with flour works just as well.  Knead in about two more cups of flour, a little at a time, and continue kneading until it is smooth, satiny and elastic.  Firth claimed that well kneaded dough had “the sheen of a baby’s bottom,” an image that appealed to me as a new mother, and that description has done me well over the years.  Each baker seems to find their own sense of when dough is ready, and it comes with practice and trial and error. 
Hand-kneading such a large batch of dough is not for the faint of heart; it can be physically grueling, and in recent years, I have let the bread machine, set on the dough cycle, do this difficult part.  When I first began making bread, I found kneading physically satisfying and a good way to work out frustration as well as psychologically rewarding: I had done it with my own hands.  If you choose this approach, add the ingredients to the pan in the order indicated in the machine’s manual. 
This bread takes three risings to get the right texture.  If I use the machine, I let the bread knead and rise once, then stop the cycle and turn the dough out. This counts as the first rising. I knead it slightly, then grease the top lightly with oil, and put it in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a tea towel, and set it in a warm place to rise to almost double.
If I am kneading by hand, I lightly grease the dough and turn it into a greased bowl, cover it with a tea towel and let rise to double – usually about 1-1/2 hours in a warm place. When it has risen, punch the dough down and knead briefly, then grease, cover, and set to rise again until almost doubled.  Two risings
In years past, that warm space has been both iffy and critical.  Too cool and the dough rises slowly; too warm and it rises too fast.  You want to watch the bread and let it rise only until about doubled in size.  This is the second rising.  The time can range anywhere from an hour to two hours.  Our new stove has a “proofing” feature, which warms the oven to the perfect temperature for rising bread, and I love it.  There’s little worry about whether it will rise or not.  Generally it has risen enough when you can poke your finger into the dough and it doesn’t spring right back.
After the second rising, for both machine and hand preparation, I turn the bread onto the lightly floured bread board, knead briefly, and then divide into five pieces.  Depending on the week’s menu, all five pieces might get shaped into loaves, but more likely, one will be shaped and wrapped in a plastic bag for refrigerator storage as pizza dough, while the others will be shaped into loaves.  Two of these are usually wrapped in plastic wrap and then in freezer bags to be stored for future use when I don’t have time to bake from scratch but need bread. I’ve even made fried dough, the kind you get at the county fair, as a midwinter treat for the kids when they were younger, but that’s another recipe.
The remaining two pieces are shaped into loaves and placed into greased pans, greased on top, covered, and let to rise to double again, before baking at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes. Nothing beats the aroma of baking bread, and be prepared for men, children and dogs to come hovering around in the kitchen while it bakes.

Bread is done when the top is golden brown and sounds hollow when it is lightly thumped with your knuckles.  Place the loaves on a rack and cool for a few minutes before turning out the loaves.  Let these cool before cutting; no matter how good, hot bread is hard to cut!

Potato Rolls
Nothing is quite as wonderful as fresh, fragrant rolls fresh from the oven. Whether for Sunday dinner or as an accompaniment to a good soup of chowder, rolls are a staple, and for me, old fashioned potato rolls are among the best.  I’m not sure where the original recipe came from. Maybe it was in one of the antique cookbooks I collect, or perhaps from a great aunt who lived on a potato farm in northern Maine, or maybe even from the green hills of Vermont.  Its origin doesn’t matter, as most potato rolls have the same basic ingredients and an easy process which makes them quick to make and great to eat.  
Potatoes have been used in breads and rolls for centuries. I remember my great grandmother, who was of Irish ancestry and came to America via New Brunswick and the shoe shops and fabric mills that flourished in New England a century ago, saving the water from boiled potatoes and later adding it to bread dough. She believed that the water helped the yeast leaven the bread, and there is little to dispute that belief.  Potato flour is now available in most markets, and there are several good organic brands, but until processed foods became popular in the middle of that last century, many housewives, especially those who lived on farms where potatoes were plentiful, made their own flour, a relatively time-consuming chore that must have been well worth it to undertake the labor. Potatoes do add nutrients and flavor, and that is part of what makes these rolls are so good.
While my original recipe, a list of ingredients on a scrap of paper, made enough rolls for a whole family, with just two of us home now, I’ve cut the ingredients in half so I get eight terrific rolls per batch, and the results are just as good.  On holidays, when the family gathers around the table, I double the amounts, and either way, there are never any rolls left over.

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (you could substitute white whole wheat)
1 teaspoon yeast (not quick yeast)
1 tablespoon potato flour
1 ½ tablespoons nonfat powdered milk
1 tablespoon sugar (I don’t substitute honey because the flavor isn’t quite as good)
¾ teaspoon  kosher salt
2 tablespoons soft unsalted butter (yup, butter, but you could use a good vegetable margarine)
1/3 cup lukewarm water
¼ cup lukewarm skim milk (whole is okay; we just use skim to cut fat)

As with bread, I let the bread machine do the work here, so I put the ingredients in the pan in the order recommended by the manufacturer and use the Dough setting.  I also let the machine go through the first rise, which is about an hour and a half in my case.  While that is processing, I can take care of other dinner preparations, and lightly grease an eight-inch cake pan with canola oil.  You can do the kneading by hand, if you have the energy, and again you are looking for a supple dough with a smooth satiny look to it.  These rolls need only two risings.  After the first rise, I turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and gently shape it into a ball. 
With a sharp knife, I cut the dough in half, and continue cutting each subsequent piece in half until I have eight pieces.  Again, I gently roll the pieces into balls and place them in the cake pan – seven around the outside edge and one in the middle.  Cover with a tea towel and set in a warm place to rise to double.  About halfway through the rise, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
When the rolls have doubled, bake on the middle rack for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool on a rack briefly then turn onto a plate.  If you like, you can brush the tops with butter, or serve them plain. You may have to hold off the family with one hand just to get these to the table.

A few final thoughts
Any time you make bread, you should use the best ingredients you can buy. In my early days of baking, I bought my flour through the co-op, which I still do now when I can, but I always try to use King Arthur brand, because I find it most reliable and I get the best product.  I buy my bulk yeast at a nearby Amish store and keep it in a glass canning jar in the fridge, and it’s also available through King Arthur.  You can substitute good honey for the sugar in most recipes, and I often do now that I have a good source from friend Sigrid. It’s a light, nicely flavored honey that works well in an equal conversion: one teaspoon honey for one teaspoon honey, one tablespoon.  It’s really only when you are using quantities larger than a cup that you have to adjust, but that’s not important here.  I use organic canola oil, and if using dry milk, I use organic from the co-op.  
Even if you can’t use all organic, nothing beats homemade bread, and with practice, anyone can learn to make good bread that will satisfy body and soul.  In fact, Kasey used to say and still holds the belief that store-bought white bread is like eating plastic.
Baking bread offers many rewards. That Kasey has chosen to take up the family tradition of bread making is evidence not only of the culinary value in making one’s own bread but also the role that it plays in establishing home. And, it’s always wonderful to be able to pull a fresh loaf of bread, a pan of rolls, or a homemade pizza from the oven just as guests arrive. There is no better way to say “Welcome to our home!”

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