Well Bred Bread



Karen Radford Treanor 

 

Copyright 2017  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a person kneeding bread.


There is a not uncommon belief that making bread is difficult, and not a task for novice cooks. This idea has been put about by the Bakers’ Guild since 1256 AD to encourage people to buy from bakeries rather than do it at home. It was reinforced by Charles II who didn't want his many lady friends spending time in the kitchen that could be devoted to him instead. And recently further enforced by an army of self-diagnosed gluten intolerants. Assuming you are none of the above, read on.

The best bread is made by angry cooks. This is not due to any mystical transference of psychic energies, it’s just that an angry cook is apt to want to thump something, and the more you thump (knead) bread dough, the finer the cooked loaf's crumb will be. Some of my best loaves have been made after an afternoon's frustrating phone calls to a service centre of some sort.

To make your own bread you will need about 20 minutes of labor, plain flour, sugar, yeast, water, some sort of oil (butter, olive, canola, etc), salt and a 12-gauge shotgun

Put two cups of warm water in a big bowl. This should be no warmer than you would bath a baby in. Sprinkle a sachet or a heaped teaspoon of dry yeast on the water, or a teaspoon sized lump of fresh yeast. Stir in a teaspoon of sugar and two cups of plain white flour, or whole wheat or multigrain flour if you prefer, with a large sturdy spoon--wooden ones are ideal. Leave the mix covered with a tea-towel while you do something else for a while. (The tea towel is to keep out kamikaze insects, passing sparrows, adventurous mice and so on—but maybe you don't live out in the country where these are very likely visitors).

Later, when the mixture in the bowl smells like beer and looks like a horror film's depiction of a haunted swamp, stir in two tablespoons of melted butter, vegetable oil, or olive oil; a teaspoon of salt, and as much more plain flour as you can put in before the dough gets too stiff to stir.

Dump the dough onto a large working surface which you have sprinkled with flour. Knead the dough by pulling the lump towards you and then putting the heels of your hands down into the lump and pushing it away. Turn the lump a quarter turn at each maneuver. Repeat the process for five or ten minutes, or until exhaustion sets in, scattering more flour on the lump if it sticks to you or the work surface.

This is where being angry comes in--the more you want to thump someone, the more you’ll enjoy thumping and pushing and pulling the dough. And the more you do that, the finer the grain of the cooked bread will be, because you’re breaking up the yeast colonies, and they’re what makes the air bubbles in the bread. You're also activating the gluten, which improves the texture. (No correspondence about the evils of gluten will be entered into. The three million Americans who have celiac disease won't be reading this story; they will be making gluten-free bread with their own recipes.)

The bread dough will be too stiff to knead after a while. Cover it with the mixing bowl or a damp tea towel or a piece of saran-wrap and leave it to rest for an hour or so. It will become spongy from the yeast activity, and increase in bulk. Knead it again for as long as you like. Unlike pastry, bread dough is improved by handling. The second kneading is not mandatory. If you prefer your bread with larger air pockets, or you are worn out from the effort, skip the second kneading.

Form the dough into a rectangle and put it in a large greased loaf pan. Or a non-stick loaf pan. Or a loaf pan lined with baking paper. (If you prefer rolls, cut the dough into as many chunks as you like and form them into circles or rectangles or some sort of pillow shape. Put them on a cookie sheet with space between to expand. Spray with edible oil so they won't form a tough skin before rising.)

Brush some oil or milk on the top of the loaf. Let it sit until it has begun to rise and get spongy, and about doubled in height. Bung it into a 200 centigrade/ 400 Fahrenheit oven for half an hour, and then reduce heat to 170C/340F for another fifteen or twenty minutes. It's hard to be exact about cooking times, as every stove has its own characteristics. Rolls, being smaller than loaves, will take only 15 or 20 minutes total.

Bread is done when it is golden brown and it gives out a hollow “thonk” when tapped with a knuckle. Tip it out onto a cooling rack. Your kitchen should now smell wonderful, and the family will beg you to cut the bread. Don’t give in: the bread’s texture is best if allowed to settle for a half-hour before cutting. Well, maybe twenty minutes.

Oh, the twelve-gauge shotgun? That’s to keep people away from the bread until it’s cool enough to cut.


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