When my dear Army wife friend Eva invited me for lunch when I first arrived, I was amazed when she casually pulled some incredible homemade zucchini-cheddar bread from the pantry to serve with butter and tea. For all of my culinary bravery, I'd never mustered the courage to try my hand at bread making - there always seems to be so much chemistry involved, not to mention that it's probably the most time-consuming kitchen activity on record.
Eva assured me it was easy and that I should give it a try. I bought two great books on Amazon and started my reading:
Both of these are by breadmaking maestro Peter Reinhart, and I poured over his fantastic introductions about winning international bread competitions and studying with the best bakers in Paris. These books are both extremely technical, and I jumped into one of his 100% whole wheat recipes first. It turned out okay but it was pretty dense and involved two full days worth of fermenting and leavening steps. I knew I needed to start with something a little more simple - making bread is so much about knowing intuitively how things should look, feel and smell because every loaf of bread seems to need it's own ratios of flour and water. So of course I turned to the master of all things culinary, Ina Garten.
She has a recipe for Honey White Bread that I've now made twice. The first time it was great, but the second time it was like yeasty warm and slightly sweet pillows from carb heaven. I am aiming to master really healthy breads in the long run, and this one is far from it - it's 100% high-gluten white bread flour, has almost an entire stick of melted butter in it, two eggs, and a cup and a half of whole milk. But one must start somewhere, right? It's hard to go wrong with that much fatty deliciousness.
Here are ten thousand photos of the whole process:
Proofing the active dry yeast
I let this sit for about an hour while I went to the store - it only needs about 5 minutes to proof, but I get so excited when things get really puffy.
After mixing the dough, kneading by hand for 20 minutes (so soft!) and letting rise for about 90 minutes. Peeking at the dough after the first rise is unbelievably satisfying.
I have learned that the "punching down" step after the first rise is totally unnecessary and tends to destroy all that hard-earned volume. You do have to move the dough around a little to distribute the carbon dioxide pockets to trigger another feeding cycle for the yeast, but I find very gentle shaping of the dough accomplishes this and preserves the bubbles that make fluffy bread.
I divided the risen dough in half, rolled one into a loaf pan;
And conducted my first braiding experiment on the other. I gently rolled these into three 9-inch logs and braided them, starting in the middle (to make sure the middle is the thickest point).
I let both loaves rise into their new forms for another 90 minutes while I went to yoga. I cannot believe how much these guys puffed up at every rise. It's so amazing when this stuff does exactly what it's supposed to. I've heard that the more you make bread in your kitchen the easier it becomes because the bread actually absorbs the little yeasts that are floating around in the air. That's why San Francisco sourdough actually can't be replicated anywhere else in the world - it's absorbing the air that is unique to that city. I love that.
I covered both of them with a little egg wash (which I warmed up first - I didn't want the chilly egg to deflate my dough, and I was extremely careful not to apply any pressure with the pastry brush), and baked for 42 minutes. The smell filled our whole building. Mmmm.
Now our only problem is finding people to eat these - we have about 8 loaves of bread in the fridge right now. Good thing we are surrounded by lots of hungry soldiers!