When I am out and about and find myself in a shop with freshly baked breads, I am sorely tempted every time. There’s something downright magical about baked things for me. They go from a gooey, sticky mess in a bowl to a delicious, not-dry but not-sticky-anymore, holding-its-shape wonder that always begs for my attention (and my purchase!). I often give in. Yesterday at MarieBette in Charlottesville, I was mesmerized by the olive baguettes, apple galettes and salted pretzel croissants (!). Heavenly, all of it! A baguette and a croissant came home with me. You don’t get texture like this everywhere. Oh, and the taste, the consistency, the crust…!
One day last week I woke up saying to myself It’s not that hard. Water, yeast, flour, salt. Other ingredients optional. So I got out a bowl and started in. That day I made rolls instead of bread; they did not last long. On Monday of this week I got the bug again and made two braids. This is just before baking them.
They came out delicious! I will not say my bread is on par with MarieBette’s, but it is respectable and yummy. Dare I ask for more?
Then Fred said, “I find baking and bread making to be a bit more challenging than some other cooking. It’s so much more than looking at a recipe and measuring accurately. The technique and order of adding ingredients is critical to the outcome. I’m still learning how to properly knead bread dough and what it should look like when it’s ready.”
Besides Fred recognizing that some things are not as simple as others and that skill and experience do come into play and affect the outcome, besides his very admirable acknowledgement that he has things to learn (don’t we all!), his statements are so true! Technique and order are important – e.g. if you add the salt too soon you will kill the yeast – and properly kneading dough is a thing to practice.
Yesterday as I made another batch, I thought about the challenge of giving instructions in written form. To knead bread, you push the wad of dough away from yourself with the heel(s) of your hand(s) and pull it back with your whole hand(s) in a grasp – forward and back, forward and back – all while moving it around on your floured surface in such a way as to pick up (and work into the dough) the flour that is on the surface. I am not sure if that makes sense in words, but it’s what I do.
Let’s start at the beginning. Water, yeast, flour and salt are the main ingredients, but recipes often call for other things. Milk or butter added in will make the dough (and subsequent bread) softer. Eggs will make it richer. Sugar will make it sweeter. Whole grains will make a different texture.
Yesterday I decided on a simple wheat dough and planned to make half of it a loaf of bread and half of it the base for a pizza. Rule of thumb: for every cup of liquid that you start with, you get about a loaf of bread or one pizza crust, so I needed two cups of liquid. I like my wheat dough a little softer, so I put about 2/3 cup on milk in my glass two-cup measure, and the rest water.
There is nothing magical about this proportion (it could as easily have been half milk and half water); it’s just what I did. The fact is that the more butterfat in the dough, the softer it will be.
Making bread has been happening for a very long time, way before exact measurements. But I’ll do my best. In the microwave this water/milk went for one minute 45 seconds, which showed just over 100F on my thermometer, which based on my results clearly was enough. The ideal temp is between 105 and 110. Yeast can multiply at 95F but a little warmer is needed to dissolve the yeast and help it “proof” or become active.
Proof the yeast? Watch. Here is my bowl of warmed water/milk combined with 2 tablespoons yeast and two cups wheat flour. In about 15 minutes, the mixture has grown. See the level in the bowl? How high up on the spoon it comes?
I love this part. I love how it grows! Look at that – it’s just three ingredients, and it grows!
After I admire it and smile, I keep going. I’ve made the mistake of adding the salt too soon (and the dough won’t rise because the yeast is dead) and forgetting the salt altogether (and the dough/bread is seriously lacking in flavor), so I try to time the salt about midway through adding the rest of the flour. I added two cups of regular flour (by which I mean unbleached white flour) to my proofed mixture,
which makes a gooky mess that’s not yet too hard to stir (though make sure you have a strong spoon). Then I added 1 ½ teaspoons salt (measured in my hand, so again, approximately), which is (another rule of thumb for me) about ¾ teaspoon per cup of liquid or per loaf. With four cups of flour total stirred into the water/milk/yeast proof, it begins to pull from the side of the bowl.
Then another cup of flour (that’s five cups total for the two cups of liquid), till it looks something like this.
That’s when you “turn it out” onto a floured surface. I don’t like to waste any bits of the dough that have stuck to the bowl, plus I want to make clean-up as easy as possible, so I use this great scraper.
Make sure your hands are clean, and it’s best to take off rings for this next part. It’s easier to watch someone knead dough than try to follow written instructions. This video might help. Keep kneading until your dough is smooth and elastic. I added about another half cup of flour to the dough before I felt it was ready. The ten minutes it takes, the exertion of energy it takes, is good for you! Using your body maintains its good health in so many ways and makes you hungry for that slice of wonderful bread that will result from your labor.
The next part is again magic, similar to the proofing of the yeast earlier. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, you let it rest. You put a little flour under it and on it, like this, then cover it with a towel and wait. All it would really need before the next stage is about 20 minutes, but a full rise is okay too. These photos were taken at 15 minutes, at 45 minutes and at one hour and 15 minutes. Look at how it grows!
What a transformation! The next set of photos show the dough at the beginning and at the end, followed by one of the most satisfying things known to humankind – punching it down!
Before rising, after rising, punch down, before rising, after rising, punch down…
Now you make the shape you want for your bread. A standard (greased) loaf pan works fine, or you can make rolls or a braid and put it down on a silicone mat sprinkled with corn meal.
This needs to rise again in a warm (not hot) place. I turned the oven on for one minute, then turned it off, then put the pan in. This is guessing (as to temperature), I know, but it works. Once it has risen (about doubled in bulk), bake it at 375F until it’s light brown and “sounds hollow” when you tap on it.
The other half of my dough I had put in a greased bowl (as they show in the video), sprinkled with flour, covered with a towel and put in the fridge. I knew I didn’t want pizza till later.
Later, I took the bowl out of the fridge and let it sit half an hour before rolling the dough out to fit my (oiled with olive oil) pizza pan. I then did a new thing! I sprinkled olive oil on top of the rolled-out dough, spread it around and sprinkled it with salt and pepper. In my cast iron pan I sautéed three medium size onions till they were softened (but not mush), set that aside. I grated three chunks of asiago cheese, each of which was a chunk as big as I could fit my fingers around, and mixed that in a bowl with some chopped spinach, 10 or so slices of hard salami cut up, and a red pepper thinly sliced. I dumped the cheese mixture on the oiled dough, spread it out, then scattered the onions on top. I baked it at 425F till it looked melty on top, then slid it off the pan to crisp the bottom. Oh yum!
Water, Yeast, Flour, Salt — the base for uncountable varieties of goodness!!