Sometimes when I’m a little confused, having trouble working out a problem, or just can’t engage with a design, the thing I need most is to disengage my brain. To just let the ebb and flow of natural events wash over me until the mental grit and grime has floated away. So, this morning I made bread. There’s nothing like bread to bring you back into focus with the real world. Not just the mixing and kneading, but the smell while it’s baking. And let’s not forget the butter-laden carb load at the end. Yum.
Now, a lot of people don’t bother to make bread at home because of the percieved hassle. I can understand this. Even reading a bread recipe is enough to make you head for the grocery store. Especially since even good bread is pretty cheap. If you eat wheat bread it is, anyway. Spelt bread is a little spendy, and my husband can’t eat wheat. So I taught myself to make everything with spelt.
Interestingly, making homemade bread is really easy. If you are going to be around the house, or even in-and-out for the day, you can fit it into a few minutes preparation spread out over a few hours. I know what you’re saying, but once you’ve made it a couple of times and memorized the process, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it before. It’s that easy.
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast (regular, not the quick rising kind)
1 cup warm water
2-3 cups umbleached all-purpose white flour, either spelt or wheat
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten and mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
1. First, put the active dry yeast in a coffee cup or other small bowl along with 1/4 cup of the warm water. How warm is warm? Like if you stood in front of the heat register. That kind of glowy warm. Not burning not and not cold. The best way to get the water this temperature is let the water run over the underside of your wrist until it feels just slightly warm, but not too hot. Put 1/4 cup of water in the cup with the yeast. Stir it with a fork and then let it sit for 10 minutes.
2. Put the yeast & water mixture in a big bowl and add another 3/4 cup of warm water. I usually use the warm water to rinse out the cup and dump it in the bowl so I get all the yeast out.
3. Add 2 cups flour. You don’t have to measure perfectly with bread, but try to get pretty close to the 2 cups. Mix it all together with a spoon until it’s holding together and you can knead it. If it’s so wet that it won’t ball up, then sprinkle a little more flour in there. If you have a ball and you have extra flour in the bowl, don’t worry, we’ll dump it out with the dough and knead it in.
4. Now, on your counter or big cutting board or whatever you’re going to knead on, pile a handfull or two of flour. Use your spoon to scoop the dough out onto the flour. It should look something like this:
5. Now you knead for 6 minutes. I set the timer so I know I’m doing it the right amount of time. You will feel the dough go from being kind of grainy to being smooth and elastic. This is what you want. You will also have to add more flour, potentially a lot more. Don’t let that worry you. Just go by feel. When the dough starts to feel sticky, sprinkle some more flour over the dough and keep kneading.
And when you’re kneading, don’t feel like you have to overdo it. I knead one-handed and just kind of toss/roll the dough ball. I grab it with one hand, pick it up and flip it over, then push it down with the heel of my hand and do it again. I try to switch arms halfway because I’m paranoid about looing like Popeye, but that’s just me. It’s hard to capture, but when I’m kneading it looks something like this:
6. When you’re done kneading, then just plop the dough back in the bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean damp towel and put it somewhere nice and comfortably warm but not too hot. In the sun or near the stove or dishwasher all work well. In the hot summer watch the sun technique, though. You don’t want to cook the bread in the bowl!
7. Let the dough rise for awhile. An hour is good. Two is better. Three is too much. Too long and the dough will start to ferment. I know theoretically this is part of the process of making sourdough, but I think there’s other steps, because every time we’ve made bread from dough that’s risen too long it’s always tasted sour, but not in a good sourdough kind of way.
When it’s done rising, it should look something like this:
8. At this point you have to decide what shape to make. This amount of dough will make one fat loaf or two skinny baguettes. Or you can just go with round, like I did here. Get a pan out that will work for the shape you want and give it a coat of butter.
9. Reach into the flour bag and just dust your hands with flour. Punch the dough so it deflates. (This is fun for kids). Peel the dough out of the bowl and use your hands to make the shape, then set it in/on the pan. Drape the towel over it and let it rise for awhile more. Half an hour is good. An hour is okay too. More than that isn’t so good. And if you’re desperate for time, you can just go ahead and bake now.
10. Heat the oven to 450 degrees, and put a pan of water on the bottom rack. Like a pie or cake pan, with about an inch or so of water. This provides the humidity to get a good crust.
11. Take the towel off your loaf, and brush the top of the bread with some beaten egg. Don’t worry about wasting a whole egg–you can use what’s left over to bake something else. Like brownies.
12. Bake the loaf at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 and make another 5-10 minutes or until the bread is golden brown. Take it out of the oven and put it on a wire rack to cool before slicing. I recommend letting it cool for half an hour, but usually I can’t wait that long. But do wait at least 10-15 minutes or the bread will be too soft and get mushy inside. And the wire rack is actually important. Otherwise the bread will sweat against the pan and that, too, will make it mushy.
13. Break out the butter. Natch.
P.S. One last tip. One of the things people hate about making bread is the mess–the dough sticks to the counter and is a pain to clean. This is where you want to have a handy-dandy dough cutter. Use that to scrape the dough gunk off the counter and the rest wipes up easily.
Okay, I know that seems like a lot, and it is a lot of explanation, but the actual process is quite easy and only takes a few minutes. And homemade bread….mmmmmm.
Enjoy! And if you try it, let me know how it goes!