Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What's cooking Wednesday

Well, today was fajitas made with leftover steak from John's (kick-ass) birthday meal that I prepared on Monday night. So, I am not putting that forward for What's Cooking Wednesday. However, today is a bread-making day so, without further ado and as promised a long, long time ago, today is your first peek into my bread-making life.

Since almost the beginning of this current maternity leave I've been making all of our bread. Now, before you ooh and aah too much, I must admit that I have a little help in the way of this:
It certainly doesn't do all the work as a bread machine would, but it does the kneading, which is the difficult part of making bread (difficult on the old arms, anyway).

I've been making bread for years, although only for special occasions or when the whim hit me. My mum got me started. She was an amazing baker and she made killer chelsea buns and rolls. Never ventured into whole grains though as she wasn't too keen on anything that wasn't white bread. So this year I started searching my cookbooks for some good multi-grain and whole grain recipes. After I went through those, I hit the library for some new ideas and landed upon this book:

It took me to a new level of bread-making. So, as tonight I'm making our bread for the next few days, and it is one of my favourites from this book, Buttermilk Bread, I'm going to share the recipe and techniques. I have one caveat though. If you haven't made bread before, this is not the recipe to begin with. I'm going to assume some proficiency in baking and bread-making. That doesn't mean you shouldn't continue reading though! Because.... because! In making bread this year, I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot about making bread but while doing that, I've also learned things about me and about how to approach my days around here, and maybe life altogether. So, read along. I'll try and show you what you can learn when you get elbow deep in the staff of life.

2 tsp active dry yeast (in other words, not instant yeast - you want the traditional stuff)
1/2 cup warm water

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let sit for a few minutes. I find it useful to put the mixture in a mug since I generally need my glass measuring cups for the other steps. Pour a cup of tea. I find a cup of tea is the perfect accompaniment to bread-making.

3/4 cup very hot water
1/4 cup honey (liquid not creamed)
1 1/4 cups cold buttermilk

Combine these ingredients in a glass measuring cup. You'll want something that pours easily.

Next, in your mixing bowl combine 5 1/2 cups of whole wheat bread flour and 2 tsp salt. Attach the bread hook to your machine, or if you are doing this by hand, get a strong wooden spoon. If using the dough hook, with the machine running at low speed slowly pour in the yeast mixture and then the water/honey/buttermilk mixture. Lesson number one: approach each step slowly and with purpose. Do not grab your tea cup and pour that in thinking it is the yeast mixture. It really doesn't play the same role as the yeast. Since I did that, I always slow down. Bread-making is purposeful. In each tiny step or movement there is purpose and results. I skip one, I make a mistake because I'm in a hurry and it can all fall apart. I can't claim that I take the same approach in everything else I do, but in my slow-moving, breadmaking moments, I like to reflect on it and hope that it is spilling over into the rest of my day.

If you are doing this by hand, stir. A lot. Now it is time to knead. If you have a mixer, lucky you. Let it run for quite a while for this recipe. I let it go about 10 minutes or so. I almost always have to add more flour. It is always too sticky and wet. If you're not sure, stick your fingers way down into the dough (please turn the machine off first!). If it feels pretty wet/sticky, add another half cup of flour and then check again after it is incorporated. Knead the dough until it is "smooth and silky." Then incorporate about 2 tbsp of butter in cold bits. Truth be told, I often forget this step and it only makes a marginal difference. There are moments when you can get away with a lack of attention. Just not very many of them. Plop the dough onto the table and form it into a ball by kneading by hand a few times. If you aren't using a machine, you'll have been kneading by hand for a while, like twenty minutes. I'm not going to go into an explanation on how to knead. I figure if you don't know, you haven't made bread before and you're not going to be making this recipe anyway. However, if you haven't tried kneading bread dough before, you really are missing out on an energizing yet calming experience. Getting your hands into a soft dough, giving yourself time to reflect on... whatever or nothing, really getting your hands into something that will possibly be the first thing you put into your mouth during the following days, sustains you through the week, is something almost spiritual. It connects you to generations and generations of people before you who kneaded their own bread and thought about the things that mattered to them. It shouldn't be missed. Try it at least once.

And yet, here is my first annoyance in my learning curve in bread-making. How do I know what a smooth and silky ball of dough looks like? How will you know? Well, here is the photo of what it should look like:

Okay, so now stick that sucker in an ungreased bowl. Don't smear it with oil or butter. It isn't necessary. Make sure the bowl is big. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a warmish place for a long time. About 1.5 hours. When I first started making bread this year and using this book, because the recipes in this book take longer than any other bread recipes I've used, I would still be doing all the usual activities around here - taking the kids to the library, the playground, going grocery shopping or doing other errands. It was always my downfall. I would come home to an over-risen dough or would be baking the bread at 11:00 at night or force it to sit in the cold storage until the next morning when I had time to bake it. I learned after too many times that this just doesn't work with good bread-making. I have to be present in what I'm doing. I have to do just one thing at a time and let the rest of the day be. We stay at home, Emily helps me make the bread, it is the activity that day. She knows that it is special, that we'll be eating this bread over the next few days and therefore it deserves our attention and the respect of letting it be our focus that day. If I do this, I have a beautiful loaf. If I don't, chances are we'll be eating a brick for a couple of days, or I'll be starting again. Give important things the respect of my time. That's what I've learned. That doesn't mean of course that I never end up baking loaves at 10:00 pm. Like when I'm focussed on getting my WCW post together rather than getting the loaves in the oven. Oh, the irony.

After the dough has risen, you want to poke it. If the hole doesn't fill in at all or if the dough sighs around the hole, it is ready for the next step. Comme ca:

Take the dough out of the bowl, press out the air and reshape it into a nice ball, put it back in the bowl, re-cover with plastic wrap, and give it a second rise. It should take about half as long as the first rise.

When that rising is complete, press the air out again, shape into a log and cut the log in half. Form each piece into a nice round. I have a technique for doing this, but you should do it whatever way you like. When you are done it should look like this:

Cover the two balls with a tea towel and let them sit for about five minutes. They will re-soften. Meanwhile, grease with butter two loaf pans. I used to use cooking spray but have realized that after all the effort of making bread, you need to pay attention to the details. Why go to all this effort only to ignore the little things that show the level of care that has gone into it all?

Now, get two plastic grocery bags. Put some water in each and empty them out, in effect getting them damp inside. Now use these to create little greenhouses over each pan and leave the bread for a final rising, about 30 minutes or so. The bread should spring back when given a gentle poke. Let it have a good rise, going a bit longer even than you think you should. If you do, you'll have an extra high loaf from this recipe and it is a devastating creation when done well.

We're in the home stretch. About 10 minutes before it is done rising, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Bake the loaves for about 1 hour. When it comes out, brush with a bit of butter for extra richness, or just cut off the heel and, as the maker, enjoy the fruits of your labours. You deserve it. As have all those who came before you. The final product:

I normally slash the loaves, but didn't tonight. Instead I chose to admire the perfect dome of a well-risen loaf. Ahhhh. Satisfying, isn't it?

If you made it this far, serious kudos. Is there an award for longest WCW post, Shannon? I think I'm in the lead, if there is.


Anonymous said...

OOOOOOoooo, AAAAAaaaahhh! VERY impressive! I can ALMOST taste it!

Shan said...

I am so impressed. That is a perfect loaf of bread. My bread doesn't come out of my bread machine looking that nice.

Melissa said...

Yumm...I can smell that yeast. Baking bread has gotta be one of the best smells ever!! Maybe I need to make some bread, in that fantastic bread MACHINE that is!!

little b said...

Did you add the yeast mixture and the honey mixture at the same time? i went back to find out where the honey mixture was added and missed it. We don't eat much bread around here, but maybe in the fall when I'm home (and it's not hot out) I'll start baking bread too.

Karen said...

Oops, you're right Beth. I forgot to mention that. You put that in right before or after the yeast mixture. Doesn't matter if it is before or after just do it around the same time.

juls said...

Wow, I can barely find the time to shower these days. Can't imagine I would ever bake a loaf of bread. Though I must say I was salivating when I read the post. Now I want a bread machine!!