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The REAL secret to homemade bread: once you get the hang of it, almost anything seems to work!

Some people think bread-making is hard, drawn-out drudgery, a mysterious art and arcane science fraught with peril for the beginner.

If you believe that, just try the quick-and-easy recipes on the preceding page! They're so incredibly simple I tried them myself to be sure they were worth printing. And they worked.

But that set me thinking. Why do so many attempts at baking bread end in failure? In an effort to find out, during my subsequent weekly baking sessions I paid closer attention to what I was doing.

My conclusion: Once you get the hang of it, almost anything seems to work. As with homesteading itself, the recipe is merely a guide. What really counts is the experience you bring to the job, and you only acquire that by practice.

I am not a "recipe person," but years ago I followed many bread recipes religiously in my search for the perfect loaf. Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- I baked as many bricks and door stops as I did crusty golden loaves of homemade bread.

I haven't used a recipe for years, but I wondered... if I could record exactly what I did, could someone else achieve the same results?

One Saturday I tried writing down the ingredients and amounts as I did the weekly baking, but it didn't work. One problem was that I don't measure anything. Transferring my three glugs of water to a measuring cup confirmed that yes, three glugs is a cup; and my scant handful of yeast is indeed a tablespoon. Converting glugs and scant handsful not only slowed me down: it destroyed my rhythm, I lost my place and got discombobulated.

But it didn't matter. Even my incomplete notes demonstrated that for me, a recipe is little more than a rough guide, and I seldom follow the same method twice.

Here's how I make bread.

(Two loaves)

In a warm bowl, place about 2-1/2 cups of warm water left over from boiling potatoes. If you don't have 2-1/2 cups of potato water, add plain water to get that amount. If you don't have any potato water (or leftover mashed potatoes you can add to water) use plain water.

Add enough flour -- whole wheat or white -- to make a mixture the consistency of pancake batter (or very heavy paint or used motor oil, depending on your point of reference). Add a little sugar -- white or brown, it doesn't matter -- or honey. (One reader has blasted using honey, since it's antiseptic and won't feed the yeast. Could be -- but it works.) Use however much looks tasty to you. As a guide, a scant handful should do it. (That's about a tablespoon -- which works better than a handful for honey.)

Also add a scant handful or tablespoon of yeast, although either more or less will work just as well. Mix it in lightly, or just let it lie on the surface; it doesn't make much difference. Add a bit of salt, either now or later.

If you start this at night, let it set in a fairly warm place until morning. If you start it in the morning, let it set until noon. If you don't have that much time, let it set until the mix starts to bubble. Doesn't matter. (If you're using all whole-wheat flour, especially freshly home ground, the sponge or thin batter will help improve texture.)

Step 2: Add more flour to the mixture: whole wheat, unbleached, whatever you have or prefer. While the base of wheat flour is important because you need the gluten in wheat, you could also add others if you're so inclined. I often toss in a little corn meal, but buckwheat, rice, and even potato flours have found their way into my breads. Or oatmeal. Keep things interesting.

Of course, you could also use milk instead of water, or add some powdered milk or an egg or two. (For some reason, powdered milk works better than whole milk. I almost always use eggs even though the health police warn that raw eggs sitting in warm bread dough for two hours or more will cause salmonella and we're all gonna die.) Sometimes you might feel the need for a little molasses. A tablespoon or so of vinegar won't hurt. White, cider, whatever. (I'd avoid herbal vinegars...but on the other hand, I've had some tasty bread that included fresh herbs, so why not?)

Bread needs a little grease, which recipes call shortening. Solid shortening makes better bread than vegetable oil, or so I've heard. I've used butter, lard, bacon grease, Crisco (both plain and butter flavored), corn oil, canola oil, take your choice. We have never allowed margarine in our kitchen, but that would work too. I've thought about using olive oil or goose grease, but haven't tried those yet. Maybe some day.

As all this gets mixed together, strive for a dough that has the silky pliable feel of a good goat's udder. The best way to do this is to start by kneading the dough while it's still pretty sticky, then adding flour, a little at a time, until you get the right feel. Of course, if your dough gets too stiff you can add a little water...but first try kneading it a little longer to see if it thins out. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

(The amount of water determines how much flour you'll need to acquire the desired consistency and elasticity: a bit more, and your loaf will be that much larger. Don't worry about adjusting the other ingredients.)

There is one bread-making rule I consider unbreakable, if you want good results: knead it well! By hand, this means until fatigue or boredom set in, whichever comes first. Using a mixer with a dough hook, boredom wins every time.

An Amish friend told me she kneads her bread by hand for 15 minutes. I made a comparison and estimated that 5-10 minutes of a Kitchen Aid with a dough hook is equivalent to about 15 minutes in Amish time.

Sometimes you want the therapy of kneading by hand. Other times -- if you have a mixer and have lots of other things to do and are in such a blame hurry you think you can't afford to be "on Amish time" as we now call it -- the mixer is handy. Either way works.

Place the dough ball in a suitable bowl or other container, cover it with a warm moist cloth to keep it from drying out, and set it in a warm place to rise. Not too warm, or it will rise too fast, but if it does, that's okay. Too cool and it won't rise fast enough, but that's all right too. Just give it more time. (Slower is better than faster.) Mine usually gets an hour, whether that's too long or not long enough, because that's how I do it. It turns out either way.

When the dough has doubled in bulk (or when the hour is up or whenever you're ready to carry on) punch it down and knead it again. Maybe you'll need to add a little more flour; but maybe not. If it's a little gooey it's harder to work with, but it supposedly makes better bread. Dough that's too stiff makes bread that's heavy and crumbly. Hard to tell though, usually.

After you're bored, or tired, or have kneaded it for 15 Amish minutes, divide the dough into two loaves and place them in greased loaf pans. Or if you find that boring and you don't need toaster-size slices, plop the ball of dough on a greased cookie sheet. Or use those tiny little loaf pans and make lots of small loaves that delight children (and make even Wonder Bread fans rave about whole wheat.) Try bread sticks. Whatever you want.

Some people let the dough rise just once before punching it down and putting it in the pans to rise again. Some think they get better bread (especially using all whole wheat or if rye flour is included) by letting it rise and kneading it again two or three times before putting it in the pans. Do whatever suits you best.

One lady I know rolls her bread dough as thin as she can get it in a large square on an oiled countertop, and also oils the top. Then she rolls it up, tucks under the ends so they meet in the middle, and puts this in the loaf pan.

Whichever method you choose, cover with the warm moist cloth again and let rise for another hour. Or until the dough is doubled in bulk.

I preheat the oven to 450 [degrees]. Once I wasn't wearing my glasses and the dial landed on 500. It got a bit crispy, but we liked it. Sometimes I know I won't be around to turn it down to 350 [degrees] after 15 minutes or so, so I set it there right away. And once in a great while I'm in such a New York hurry I don't have time to preheat the oven at all. No big deal.

(Later note: I just checked out the original recipe -- the one I used to use -- and it says to preheat the oven to 350 [degrees] -- not 450 [degrees] --bake for 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 300 [degrees] -- not 350 [degrees] -- and bake for another 30 minutes. I've been doing it wrong all these years? Imagine that. But here's another aside: not all ovens produce the temperatures the dial is set at. And even if you use a special oven thermometer to check this, personal experience reigns.)

Put the loaves in the oven. If the oven is set at 450 [degrees], turn it down to 350 [degrees] after 15 minutes... or 10 or 20 minutes is okay too. Let it bake for a total of 45-60 minutes. Too long is better than too short, provided it's not turning dark brown or black.

You can test it by turning it out of the pan and thumping it on the bottom, sort of like testing a watermelon. It's the same kind of art, with the same results (or lack thereof), but it'll probably feel good and it might provide a lesson for next time, if you can remember what the thump felt like. If you just let the loaf finish baking upside down on the oven rack you'll end up with a crunchier crust. Which is good if you enjoy that, or not so good if you don't. Your choice.

Remove the pans from the oven, the bread from the pans, and cool on racks. Or set crosswise on the pans. Or cut a hunk off and eat it with dripping melting butter. The rules say to let it cool, but that's just so it's easier to slice. After all, there aren't any rules to baking homemade bread except to knead it well.

With one exception: The Critique.

From my earliest years, I don't recall my mother ever baking a loaf of bread (and she made all of ours) without "The Critique." Whether the rising time was too long or too short, the flour her favorite brand or a substitute, the oven too slow or too quick -- and even though the bread was invariably delicious -- that first luscious slice was always accompanied by an analysis. It might or might not help improve the next batch, but it's a tradition we follow faithfully.

For those who need

a "real' recipe...

As some of the "quick bread" recipes in this issue show, bread is nothing more than a mixture of water, flour, yeast, and a little shortening, salt and sweetener. With some experience, that's enough to go on...but acquiring that experience will require a little guidance.

Here's the above recipe (more-or-less) with some of the options and creativity left out.

1/3 cup light brown sugar 2-1/3 cups warm water (potato water preferred) 1-1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast 6 cups finely ground whole wheat or white flour, or any combination (the addition of white flour makes a lighter loaf) 3/4 cups powdered milk 2 teaspoons salt 1/3 cup soft shortening (butter, margarine, lard or Crisco) 1-1/2 tablespoons vinegar

Dissolve 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar in 2-1/3 cups warm water. Add yeast and stir lightly. Let stand in a warm place (or in a larger bowl of hot tap water) until mixture bubbles: about 10-15 minutes.

Combine 5 cups of flour (whole wheat, white, or some of each), 3/4 cup powdered milk, the rest of the brown sugar and salt in a large bowl (or the mixer bowl, if you use a mixer). Mix thoroughly, using your fingers.

(If using a mixer with a dough hook, start now.)

Slowly add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture while blending the two together. When combined, add 1-1/2 tablespoons of vinegar and 1/3 cup soft butter or shortening. Mix thoroughly again.

Add the rest of the flour, about a tablespoon at a time, mixing in each addition.

Knead the dough -- if by hand, on a flat, smooth, floured surface: a bread board is obviously the ideal, but a clean sturdy table or counter top will work.

Don't baby it! Vigorously press the heels of your hands into the dough, grab the far side, pick it up and bringing it toward you, slam it down. Punch it! Fold it in half and repeat, twisting the dough 90 [degrees] right or left.

Keep doing this and you'll find your rhythm. In a short time it will seem natural...even fun!

Kneading time depends on your strength and how much you throw yourself into the task, but figure 15 minutes, minimum. (10 minutes with a mixer.)

Place the dough in a greased bowl, rotate the dough ball to coat it with the grease, and cover with plastic wrap or a moist clean cloth. Let rise in a warm place (80 [degrees]) until doubled in bulk.

Punch the dough down and knead it again. Divide in two and place in greased bread pans. (Use solid shortening or butter or margarine, not oil.) Grease tops with oil. Place in a warm place (a slightly warm oven -- 90 [degrees] -- will help in cold weather) until the dough has risen slightly higher than the pan -- about an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 [degrees]. Bake for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 300 [degrees] and bake for 30 more minutes.

Remove from pans and cool on wire racks.

There are no rules for

bread -- or homesteading

While this "recipe" might appear to be facetious, it's not: it's a description of the way many people bake and cook -- as well as garden and homestead.

Some people do need "rules," and some follow them slavishly, especially at first. But often the rules don't work, and you have to make adjustments based on experience and observation.

With experience, you can become more creative and innovative, which is where the real fun begins!

Factors affecting the

texture of bread

Several factors influence the crustiness (or lack thereof) of bread:

* Different flours result in slightly different textures, from chewy to crispy to crunchy. Flours vary by type of wheat, the area it's grown in, and even the weather during the growing season.

* You can make loaves extra crunchy by taking them out of the pan 15-30 minutes before they're done and returning them to the oven without pans.

* Dusting small loaves with flour before baking makes for a firmer crust.

* Dusting baking sheets or pans with cornmeal or semolina makes for a crisp bottom.

* The material of the pan affects the texture of the crust. Dark, dull-finished metals create the brownest, crunchiest crusts; shiny metals next, glass and ceramic the least crunchy.

Water and egg brushes create beautiful glazes but don't make much difference in the texture of the actual crust.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Country Kitchen; humor - includes recipes
Author:Belanger, Jd
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:Homemade bread? No sweat! These recipes are extremely simple - and fast, too!
Next Article:Reduce sugar by cooking with honey.

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