Monday, March 27, 2006

Baking Bread


It was the summer of '79, the Black Summer. I'd graduated from college and was unemployed. I was dating the wrong boy. I wasn't getting along with my room-mate (one of those friends who was dear and wonderful, as long as we weren't living under the same roof. Which we did on 3, maybe 4 occasions. We no longer speak). That was the summer I learned to bake bread.

It was a survival tactic. Everything costs a lot of money when you don't have any money and I was looking for every little economy I could find. When my mom gave me the Better Homes & Gardens Homemade Bread Cookbook I tried my hand at the alchemy of bread.

The recipes in this book, which as you can see I still own and have used a lot, are quite good. There is some basic baking information in the book but most of the important things seem to have been left out. Or perhaps it's just that there are certain things you can only learn by doing. For example:

It takes far longer for whole wheat bread to rise than white bread.
On a very damp day you may use a lot more flour than the recipe calls for.
You can't overknead bread if you're doing it by hand but watch it if you're using a dough hook.
No book cannot adequately impart the feel of bread dough when it has been kneaded enough.

My first attempts at bread were dense and inedible. The trick is not so much ingredients and effort as developing patience. Dough needs time. How long to knead, how long it must rise and rest and rise again are all subject to forces outside the baker's control. If you are in a hurry, best to make biscuits.

I no longer bake due to financial privation. Every 8 days or so it is time to make a fresh batch. The only problem with home-baked bread is that it doesn't last as long, by which I mean, it is hard to resist and we eat far more of it than the store-bought flannel bread. There is no resisting a loaf fresh from the oven. A loaf has never completely cooled before everyone has to have a test slice, smeared with butter and eaten out of hand with not so much as a plate to catch the crumbs. The Dog will take care of those. And if we consume more carbs than is currently fastionably, who cares? Life is short. I have no time or patience for an anti-carb mentality. What is the point of life without bread? And wine. And cheese. Everything else might be negotiable, but not that holy trinity of yeast and bacteria sanctified.

One thing I have had little success with is sourdough. I made some sourdough starter once many years ago, carefully following the instructions to combine flour, water, yeast and sugar and leave the sponge in a warm place. It bubbled up nicely and I took care to daily stir down the sponge during the 5 day "incubation" period. Except for the day I forgot. I came home to an overpowering scent of yeast and a small puddle of sponge on the counter. The cleanup was complicated by the fact that dough was still dripping from somewhere. I looked up and the sponge had burst over the walls of the bowl, climbed out and over the shelf and was dripping first to the counter and then to the floor. This was a very sticky and disgusting mess to clean up and I didn't try again for years. When I did try again the starter failed to start. There seemed to be absolutely no wild yeasts present in the air of our new house (and it's the wild yeasts who come to party with the regular yeast that make the characteristic "sour" taste of sourdough).

After 8 years of baking here, I am hoping that the environment is now conducive to sourdough success. I'm going to give it a go today, along with baking the week's supply of oatmeal-wheat bread. It's time for a fresh batch when the last loaf measures 3 inches.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Eric opined...

mmmmm Fresh Bread

March 27, 2006 2:27 PM  
Blogger Grish opined...

Oh, I love fresh bread. I thought about buying one of those lil bread machines you can buy but my Grandma and Mother used to make it for us all time from scratch.

March 27, 2006 5:33 PM  
Blogger Legal Alien opined...

During my senior year at UNM, I baked two loaves of sourdough weekly for common consumption in our group house. Say what you will about slovenly, directionless college guys. But we sure knew how to appreciate fresh homemade bread.

March 28, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Buck opined...

I cannot bake bread. I'm a disaster at it. Now I know -- I've kneaded it too much with the dough hook or not enough by hand. Both are easy to do. Then you have to do it all over again in an hour or so.

"I Knead Thee Every Hour. . . "

August 06, 2010 6:39 PM  

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