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loafbread

For almost a hundred years admen (and yes, they have mostly been men) have been telling us, “cooking is hard; let’s go shopping.” In particular, they want us to shop for processed foods like cake mix and canned chicken stock. But is it really that hard to make these, and other things at home, the way our great-grandmothers did? I intend to find out.

Today begins a new occasional series here on Comestibles called, “Is Slow Food Really Slow?” in which I examine the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming, like baking a cake from scratch or making chicken stock at home, are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe. We’ll begin with the staff of life: bread.

If you can answer your email, write the latest report required by your boss, and talk on the phone with a client, all while tweeting with your best friend about where to meet after work, then you can bake bread at home. Your great-grandmother knew that it was all about multi-tasking and she didn’t even have the Internet.

The amount of active time in the kitchen needed to bake bread, without using any fancy equipment, is about thirty minutes. Yes, you read that right, thirty minutes. I timed it myself, just the other day. It’s all the waiting time in between that scares everyone (the total time is about four hours), but this is where you pull out your mad multi-tasking skills.

The process of baking bread can be divided into seven distinct segments, but you only have to be in the kitchen for three of them. This leaves you with several periods during which you can do other things. You can even leave the house if you’re careful about it. Here is how the time breaks out (I have colored the active parts green, for the rest, you can be out of the kitchen):

Measure and mix the ingredients: 10 minutes
Short rest: 10 minutes
Knead: 10 minutes
First Rise: 90 minutes
Punch down and shape: 10 minutes
Second Rise: 45 minutes
Bake: 45-50 minutes

There is really only one danger faced by the multi-taking baker: over-proofing your dough. If you choose to leave the house during that 90 minute first rise, be sure to return on time. If you allow your dough to rise too long, the yeast can become exhausted and the strands of gluten can break. This will result in door stops instead of loaves.

Also, if an unforeseen disaster strikes, forcing you to abandon your bread making, you can shove the dough in the fridge to slow it down and pick up later where you left off. Once you’ve baked bread at home a few times, the fear will leave you and you’ll realize that it is not nearly as persnickety as we have been led to believe.

Home Baked Bread

Adapted from Marion Cunningham

Makes two 8½ x 4½ x 2½-inch loaves

If you haven’t done this before, here’s a nice video demonstration of how to knead bread.

1 package active dry yeast (or 2¼ teaspoons)
2½ cups warm water
2½ teaspoons salt
5½ to 6 cups all-purpose flour

Stir the yeast into the warm water in a large bowl and let stand for a minute. Add the salt and 4½ cups of the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. Add a little more flour if needed for the dough to come together into a mass that can be kneaded. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface, knead it for 1 minute and then let it rest for 10 minutes.

After resting, knead the dough for about 10 minutes sprinkling flour on it, and the work surface to prevent it from being too sticky. Stop kneading when the consistency of the dough changes and and it becomes smooth and elastic. Grease a large bowl with butter, put the dough in it, turning it to coat it slightly with the butter, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 90 minutes).

You’ll know the dough has finished rising when you poke it with your finger and it holds the depression and doesn’t bounce back. At this point, punch down the dough and divide it in half. Shape the pieces into loaves by stretching gently down and around the sides and forming a seam at the bottom. Place each loaf, seam side down, in a greased loaf pan. Cover the pans with a dishtowel and put them in a warm place to rise again, until the dough is double in bulk (about 45 minutes). Bake the loaves in a 350F oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is well browned. Remove from the loaf pans and turn out on racks to cool.

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