I made my first loaf of bread when I was nine. At the time we were living in a small brick house in upper NW DC catty corner to an A&P (it’s something else now). I loved that house– it had lots of nooks and crannies and the kitchen had a tiny breakfast room with walls flanked with banquettes. Our kitchen was so small that we often did a lot of food prep in the breakfast room; the table was the perfect size and height for rolling out sugar cookies or kneading dough.
My first bread recipe came from a cookbook — the kind popular in the 70’s with a spiral binding that allowed the book to stand up so you could flip pages as you were working your way through the recipe. It had been a gift from one of my parent’s friends. I decided to make “Basic Bread,” because to my 9 year old self, it was the most complicated recipe, yet the most impressive transformation from a handful of simple ingredients to final product. The success of that single loaf of sandwich bread was the first kiss of my lifelong love affair with baking.
Over the years, I’ve learned to make the kinds of breads my friends and family enjoy the most– challah, baguettes, ciabatta, tortillas and pitas, brioche, plain sandwich loaves, dense but slightly sweet oatmeal breads, that buttery, cake-like NORTHERN cornbread for my Cherry Hill/Pittsburgh husband (rather than the crumbly kind I had growing up and still prefer– speckled with bacon bits from the lard our housekeeper used), biscuits for my son’s sausage biscuits and most recently, THOSE potato rolls. My latest to-do list, which can change on a whim, includes English muffins as well as refining my base recipe to recreate the “ooey gooey” buns we get every summer at the coffee shop in Lewes, DE.
After many years of trial and error, I now know that bread doughs feel different, depending on the type of bread I’m making, and that it’s better to have your initial dough too wet than too dry because adding flour during kneading is easy, while adding water is near impossible. Punching down dough after the first rise is great for a close crumb (the texture of the bread once you’ve sliced it) since you want to eliminate big air pockets during the second rise, but not really needed when you want a big holey, artisan loaf. I’ve learned that steaming creates that hard crust on baguettes and ciabatta, but only in the first two minutes of baking, so spray fast and close the oven door quickly. Bread pans are NOT all alike; my favorite remains the Pampered Chef loaf pan– and I’m lucky to have my friend Janice ever at the ready when I need to restock . Likewise, I’m picky about flour and I have moved exclusively to the King Arthur brand, not just for bread, but for all my baking (I realize I’m beginning to sound like an advertisement for baking products, but every baker has his go-to tools of the trade).
I also now always use instant/rapid-rise/bread machine yeast because it doesn’t need to proof and never fails as long as I remember to whisk the salt into the other dry ingredients before I add the yeast. I’ve realized that success in baking is much like success in roasting and I faithfully use an instant read thermometer to check “doneness.” Bread needs to reach a certain temperature– at least 190 degrees for pan loaves like sandwich bread and higher for artisan loaves. (As I’ve posted earlier, neither color nor the “thump test” has ever been a reliable indicator for me). Lastly, and for my family, the most difficult lesson of all, is that the loaves need to sit UNDISTURBED for 45 minutes. Cutting into a hot loaf pulls all those unsettled proteins together, leaving you with an ugly, rubbery blob running through the center of the loaf– certainly edible, but NOT appealing!
I bake bread weekly because mine is better and cheaper than what I can get at the local grocery store. Today I made three loaves of bread– two of white sandwich and one of oatmeal sandwich. Both are recipes from the King Arthur site (here for sandwich, here for oatmeal). I use only the ingredient lists for these breads; I rely on my own techniques for mixing, kneading, rising, shaping and baking.
I would have made two loaves of the oatmeal bread (it’s so good, it may replace the regular sandwich bread), but I haven’t scaled the KA recipe and didn’t have the leisure to experiment. The oatmeal changes the weight and feel of the dough, and experimenting has the potential outcome of a failed, inedible end product. This was NOT an option because my Midnight Snacker had announced that the NYC onion rolls, leftover from camping, were the only items in the bread box. Evidently not suitable for midnight consumption, so I was determined to get the pans in and out of the oven. No trial, no error means PERFECTLY edible loaves!
Now we’re set for the week; French toast, lunch sandwiches, midnight snacks, breakfast toast– here we come! Hmm, I think I hear the Midnight Snacker heading up from the man-cave a little ahead of schedule…