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Grain of Salt: Daily Bread

After watching HBO’s Weight of the Nation (which you have to see if you haven’t yet) our entire family has decided to go on a health kick. Mom has made a brave (and miraculously successful!) first attempt at cooking kale (see post Friday or so), Francesca has taken up Irish step dancing, Isabella has been dragging me on these miserable runs, and dad has agreed to keep on eating whatever we put in front of him.

 

Good things are coming your way

 

But as luck would have it, a week into this health kick, mom was scheduled to teach her famous fried chicken class, with lime creamed corn, buttermilk mashed potatoes with crispy (deep fried) shallots and Jack Daniel’s fudge pie. The foodpocalypse was essentially zooming towards us, with nothing we could do to stop it. The only way for us children to keep ourselves in check was to eat a light dinner, and hopefully only be hungry for a drumstick or so when we got home. So as class time approached, the girls and I ventured out for an evening of Panera (which has healthy options), Froyo (which is not healthy, but is healthier than some things) and nerdy cavorting at Barnes and Noble.

 

And this is what we found

 

It was a lovely time, and we actually ended up learning a lot of lessons over the course over the evening. We learned copious amounts about whales, Irish history, graphic design, and not letting the pigeon drive the bus, and we learned how to fail at moderating ourselves at Froyo World (The toppings are just right there for you to take! These people are marketing geniuses!)

 

Froyo isn't froyo without 5 cherries

 

But of all the lessons we learned, the best was certainly how much you can benefit from being an indecisive nut. We spent such a long time trying to figure out which option at Panera would maximize health and yumminess, that I felt a bother correcting the lady when she thought I said I wanted tuna on honey-wheat instead of whole grain and had already put in my order. By some miraculous stroke of luck, honey-wheat bread turned out to be so soft, gently sweet and perfect that it has since become my default bread of choice. And since mom’s last post was about butter, what could I do but write a fresh baked bread post to match.

 

three's a charm

 

This is the first time I’ve made bread on the blog, so this is going to be a tutorial, not just a recipe. Even if you’re an experienced bread maker, there are a lot of steps that a lot of us just dutifully do, which we ought to try and understand. To begin we have a starter, which is some permutation of water, flour and yeast, as you see above. It actually has little to do with making the bread rise, but instead is mostly about making sure the bread actually tastes like something. The starter we’re making  here is called a sponge, and is made with equal parts flour and water, along with a little bit of instant yeast. As it sits at room temperature for about an hour (or up to 4) the yeast ferments and takes your bread from bland to boss.

 

 

First, we add instant yeast to the water, and immediately whisk it in to prevent clumping. Following Rose Levy Beranbaum (the queen of Bread) I advise you to almost always use instant yeast, which is more convenient for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it can be activated in room temperature water, not just the 90-100° required by active dry (although that temperature will work too – it’s very flexible – just don’t use super hot or super cold). It is also called rapid rise, leading to the misconception that it causes your bread to rise faster, which it doesn’t. But it is very easy to use, and serves our purposes in almost every case.

 

It looks icky but trust me it's good

 

We then whisk in the flour, until we get this nice pasty thing. Rose Levy Beranbaum says that she likes her sponge starters to be more liquidy because the yeast makes more bubbles, resulting in a lighter, more even bread. So that’s what we made. To let the bubbles and flavor develop, we let it sit at room temperature for an hour. We could have gone longer, but I’m impatient. Go until your starter looks at least kind of like this:

 

 

See all the bubbles? That means it’s alive! If that doesn’t happen, start over/buy new yeast. Cover it tightly while it’s fermenting. It prevents the dough from drying out, and also you get to see the plastic wrap dome up as the yeast releases carbon dioxide. Also note that some the gas will bubble up and pop on the surface. Which means it’s working and is also fun to see. Meanwhile get everything else together. First off, we have crisco…

 

Don't worry, every fiber of my being is dying right now

 

…which is usually really bad for you – worse even than butter, which we usually advocate above all else. But in baking, butter can make things harder and drier, which only good when when we want a nice crisp cookie. In this case, when what we were looking for was a moist, soft bread above all else, shortening was the only option. Adding a little bit of fat to the bread tenderizes it, making it soft and addictive, just like you want. And since we’re using it in low quantities, this bread is still healthy and low-cal.

 

This is a picture of honey mixed with water

 

Next we have honey. Sometimes sweet things (sugar, honey, etc.) are added so that the yeast has something to eat and makes more bubbles, but here it’s really just a flavor thing. Before you add all the other ingredients, whisk the honey in with the water so that it’s less sticky, and distributes nicely.

 

 

Finally we have the flour, which gets whisked with the salt. This means the salt doesn’t get added all at once, minimizing its contact with the yeast (otherwise a lot of the yeast will die, which would suck).

 

 

We are ready to mix! Whisk the yeast into the honey-water, then add the shortening, flour-salt mixture and your starter. You can begin kneading it by hand, but please consult The Bread Bible for instructions on how to do that. I’ve found that my best results by far come from using a KitchenAid. Using a dough hook, mix the dough on setting #2 for about 1 to 1.5 minutes, until it looks like this:

 

As you can see, there's little bits of shortening and everything. That's fine.

 

Then we let it rest, covered, for 20 minutes. This lets the flour absorb the water better, and means our mixing time will shorten. Meaning, among other things, we won’t get impatient and make the bread mix on too high a setting, breaking all the gluten bonds and essentially killing any chance of our bread being edible.

 

This is a picture of dough about to rise

 

Then turn the mixer back on and let it mix on setting #4 for about 15 minutes, or until it’s pretty stretchy. Then cut the dough in half, and form it into two rounds, and put on wax paper. Cover with a warm, moist towel, and set to rise in a decently warm place for about 40 minutes. When you’re forming it into rounds, pull the sides out a bit, and then fold them around back, and then tuck the ends under, so the top is nice and smooth, like you see above. Otherwise you can end up with a kind of craggy looking top. Like this silly looking thing:

 

This is picture of a very silly looking bread

 

Yours probably won’t look so extreme, because this dough was super dry… but still, lets not take chances. Once the dough has risen, you can either transfer it to a loaf pan, or bake it on its own directly on the baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 350°F convection/375° conventional and let it rise for about another 45 minutes, preferably in a warm area, covering again with a warm, moist towel. You’re ready to bake! A loaf in no pan takes about 25 minutes, while a loaf in a pan can take up to 10 minutes longer. To be on the safe side, insert a baking thermometer into the center. It’s done when it reaches between 190 and 200°F. Let cool for as long as you can stand it (at least 10 minutes), slice, and eat!

 

 

You can find my full recipe on Food52 by clicking here. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions. I highly recommend making this bred, whether you’re very experienced or brand new to the process. I think you’ll agree that a slice of this bread is pretty much the best thing since (wait for it…) itself.

Written by Gabrielle

Gabrielle

Gabrielle is a snap-happy college student with a small budget and a big appetite. Her column on the Fig Test Kitchen documents her adventures learning to cook for herself and reminds us all to take life with a Grain of Salt.

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