28 August 2009
Some time ago, years ago, I received The Calling. Not all chefs are called, but I was. I'm not sure exactly when I heard The Call. It could have been when I became tired of seeing 36 different ingredients on the package of bread that I bought. I tried buying bread from local, top-notch bakeries with varying degrees of success. Mostly, though, their loaves became too stale, too fast. Even then there seemed to be too many ingredients in the loaves. It should be simple, thought I, to make a loaf of bread. I'll need yeast, water, oil, flour, and salt. Thus, my journey into true baking began.
I feel a little like Odysseus, having completed my own ten-year odyssey fraught with the callings of beautiful yeast strains, flours of varying protein contents, starters both ancient and young, and seemingly endless methods. But like all mythic heroes I have come full circle. I have come home. I now make bread of all kinds but my favorites remain the simplest loaves made only with yeast, water, oil, flour, and salt (I add a trivial amount of sugar to feed the yeast as it is proofing).
I have come to favor certain ingredients. My favorite yeast is made by Hodgson Mill. There is slightly more yeast in one of their packages and it leaves a wonderful yeasty flavor to the finished loaf.
My flour is King Arthur; bread flour, all purpose flour, and whole wheat flour. King Arthur flours are higher in gluten than most other flours. For this reason they lend themselves perfectly to bread making. Gluten is the protein that gives bread it's nice, fine crumb. This is why we have bread flours available as they are higher in gluten content.
I typically use coarse sea salt as I like the way the grains don't totally dissolve, leaving you with a nice salty bite now and again. La Baleine is my favorite brand.
As for the oil, I will use various types: EVOO, almond, hazelnut, grape seed, and walnut. Hazelnut is my preference because I like the way that it smells when it bakes and I like the faint nutty taste in the loaf. Try and get your hands on some J. Leblanc nut oils. You will not regret it. I use them exclusively for my breads. For whole wheat loaves that call for an addition of molasses or something strong like that then I will use a more neutral oil as the delicate hazelnut flavor can get lost. You can even use butter if you prefer.
The liquid I most frequently use is water. I do this so that I can keep the bread vegan (I am not vegan or vegetarian but I don't eat a lot of dairy, either). Milk is perfectly acceptable as is buttermilk, cream, and even beer. But my basic loaf calls for only water.
Try this loaf. It is a basic white bread that makes superlative sandwiches, toast, French toast, and bread pudding. Just about anything that calls for a slice of white bread will be made better with this loaf. When you are comfortable with the process of this bread you will find that you don't need to measure the ingredients quite as accurately because you will know the look, feel, smell, and even the sound of this loaf.
The basic white loaf can be kneaded in the standing mixer but I always prefer to take it out and knead it by hand. It becomes a very meditative moment for me. The escape that it provides is really what making bread is all about; Zen through bread. I hope that you are called upon.
White Sandwich Bread
2.5 cups Warm water (100° or so)
1 package Yeast (I use Hodgson Mill)
1 Tbsp. Sugar
4 Tbsp Hazelnut Oil, or EVOO
1 Tbsp Sea Salt
6.5 - 7 cups King Arthur Bread flour
Dissolve the sugar and yeast in the 1/2 cup of the warm water. When it is nice and puffy add the other two cups of warm water, oil, and sea salt. Stir to dissolve the salt.
Add 3 cups of the flour and stir with a fork until the flour is incorporated. Add 3 more cups of flour and stir until the dough starts to come together. You may find it helpful to now switch to a sturdy wooden spoon with which to stir. If the dough still seems wet and is clinging to the sides of the bowl, add a little more flour (1/4 cup) and stir until the dough pulls away from the bowl and comes together in a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface (wooden cutting board in my case) and knead for 10-12 minutes. This is my favorite part of making bread. Really work the dough with the heels of your palms while pressing, folding, and turning the dough. Add flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the surface. When the dough is smooth and satin looking drop it into a lightly oiled bowl, top side down. Now turn the ball of dough over, cover the bowl with a warm, damp cloth, and allow the dough to rise (in a warm spot; in a turned-off oven in my case) until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Gently deflate the risen dough, shape into a smooth ball again and divide in half. Shape each half into a ball so that the outside is smooth and satiny. Press one ball into a rectangle and roll the top of the rectangle down to the bottom (like a jelly roll). Pinch the seams together, pull the ends over and pinch those seams together, too. Drop the loaf, seam side down, into a WELL BUTTERED loaf pan (seriously, grease the shit out of it). Repeat this process with the other ball of dough.
Cover the pans with a warm damp cloth and allow to rise, as before (but not in the oven this time) until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes to an hour. While the loaves are rising preheat the oven to 375°.
Bake the loaves at 375° for 35-45 minutes. Do not open the oven until at least 20 minutes have passed and you need to rotate the loaves. The Bread Gods frown on opening the oven too soon. After 35 minutes test one loaf to see if it is done. Turn the loaf out of the pan and insert and instant read thermometer into the bottom. It should read 200°. If your loaf isn't done just drop it back into the pan and put it back in the oven. When the loaves are done turn them onto a cooling rack and wait about 30 minutes to slice.
Makes two 1lb. loaves