Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bread and Circus

This weekend Jason and I started a series of projects that mark a threshold from dipping our toes in the homesteading arts to more of a serious wade. Jason's parents were kind enough to give him a beer brewing kit for Christmas. This new equipment at hand he set out to start his first batch of homebrew - hopefully soon to be the subject of another post - while I began my own 'first'...baking yeast-rising bread.

I will say that I have made attempts at baking bread in the past, so this was not a FIRST in the way of baking bread, but of coming out at the end with something I had mixed, kneaded, risen, proofed and baked without mishap. Well...without mishap was a bit off, but I did end up with some tasty loaves.

The day started with a trip to the First Alternative Natural Food Co-Op for flour. I must say that I LOVE the bulk foods section there because a) they have all kinds of things I did not expect as bulk foods like tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and frozen berries, and b) you can grind your own flour!!! It was a lot of fun to watch the grains slipping down from the bin and come out into my mason jar as coarsely ground goodness. I picked up my yeast and then headed home to get my bake on.

I should preface the rest of this article by saying that I am in NO way a baker. I love love love to cook, but when it comes to flour and sugar and measuring spoons I generally steer clear. Cooking to me is improv jazz - I know the key, feel the beat, and play what makes the most sense to me at the time. Recipes are guidelines to me...something I reference but in no way take seriously. Baking however is more akin to science. It's actually important to follow the recipe. In the past I've tried to apply my libertarian (don't put your measurements and 'calls for' laws on me!) approach to baking and it ends up in cookies that look like pancakes, cakes that look like doughnuts, and pie crusts that require a machete to dent. A great example of my baking prowess is that the last time I tried to bake bread (I will not tell you how many times I have tried, but suffice to say that its more than two and less than ten) I killed the yeast with water that was too hot. This might have been due to the fact that I did not want to have to buy a thermometer and decided I could feel 115 degrees with my pinkie finger.

So...if you are new to baking let my story help you feel less inadequate, and if you are an accomplished baker please feel free to treat this as a baking comedy.

I decided to use the Whole Wheat Bread recipe from The Joy of Cooking, which, as I learned just now, was recently corrected to say that it makes two loaves, not three (no wonder I thought my three loaves looked pathetically small). I really enjoy this book - it's a total classic. What I like best about it is that the recipes are clear, concise, and generally very simple. When I use it for cooking it serves more as a foundation for inspiration rather than a guide, but for baking I like it because I am the kind of person who hates to read the instructions before playing with a new toy.

I did get a thermometer for the project.

I mixed the wet and dry ingredients in advance of activating the yeast, and got my water to the proper temperature thanks to my new candy thermometer. Once all of the ingredients were incorporated I went a bit off script (though in fairness I found this idea in the recipe for bread right after the one I was doing so it seemed safe enough) and divided the dough up into three pieces to flavor each one differently. I decided to keep one plain, add dill and cumin to one, and put sunflower, flax, and sesame seeds in the third. I kneaded them just enough to get all the ingredients mixed in and set each in its own bowl to rise.

And yeah, nothing happened.

Now I have led you to believe that my big mistake was that I added things to the dough. Actually that was fine, and would have worked well had I not bumbled other things up. Once I waited an hour in excited anticipation (I was SURE this was going to work this time) the lumps of dough were still pathetically small.

So...I started looking into bread issues.

I found a great website called that cued me in to two of the things I screwed up. The first was that I got to see a picture of what activated yeast actually looks like. I KNOW I got the right temperature with my yeast since I took pains to stare my thermometer down until it hit my temp zone. However, I did not let the yeast sit long enough to get going properly. I also learned that adding a bit of honey or sugar to the yeast right when you put it into the water is helpful. I also learned that salt kills yeast. This is where Joy of Cooking failed me! It called for me to put the salt into the wet ingredients not the dry, and then add the yeast to the liquids before putting in the flour. Why I don't know, and apparently this has not stopped people from making this bread for 75 years. I guess the irony for me is that the girl who never follows directions followed them too well.

I also learned that kneading is kind of important. Not just to get the bread mixed well, but to create the gluten needed to hold up the dough while it rises, and to add in air to the dough to help the yeast do its thing. How did I miss this crucial bit you ask?

Yeah...I might have skipped reading all of the directions about bread making that the recipe suggested.

I was very very upset. I had three bricks of wheaty uselessness and no bread to bake. Fortunately for me I also suck at writing down ingredients when I go to the store. While there I could not remember if I needed one yeast packet or two. So here is where improv cooking girl decided to toss caution to the wind and ignore all the threaded online posts indicating that unrisen bread should be tossed or turned into pizza dough.

I activated the yeast using the directions I'd found, added honey to the mix and viola! The yeast fizzed and came to life. Very cool. I let it get good and active while I took my three fun little loaves and kneaded them into one. I felt sad that I was not going to get three unique flavors, but at this point I decided I was just going to be happy to get myself some damn bread. I added the yeast, kneaded, proofed, and set the dough out to rise.

And it did!

At least some - not nearly to double in size...but beggars can't be choosers.

In the end I baked three round peasant-bread style loaves that were dense but springy with a thick, crispy crust and a nice nutty flavor. I immediately transported one of them to my friend Josh's place to cut up with a myriad of spreads and cheeses for a wine tasting and scrabble party.

So now that I know what to do I will certainly be making more bread in the future. In the end even having to use the second yeast packet, we figured that the bread comes out to be $1.75/loaf, meets our culinary needs for two weeks, and is WAY WAY tastier than what we usually get at the store. If you are interested in what else is on this platter, or in learning more about the wine in the picture, please check out this post on The Oregon Wine Blog.

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