Thursday, January 7, 2010

Basic Bread

Long before the What's Cooking column debuted in the Left Hand Valley Courier, this piece appeared, way back in May, 2007, mostly because we had some extra space to fill.

The bunny-shaped bread, fondly known as "bunzilla" around the house, wasn't actually baked specifically for the column, but it was a cute bread photo that I had handy. For Easter in 2007, I decided that I wanted to bake a bunny-shaped bread, and I started working on getting it right several weeks before. The first bread I baked looked like an adorable bunny going it, and it came out like an angry gargoyle.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I was baking three loaves a day, trying to perfect the shape of the critter. Each day, my husband brought bread to coworkers, and as the days wore on, I nailed down the method for getting the proportions right and the ears to behave. By Easter, I had acceptable bunny bread.

The following recipe is for my basic slap-it-together everyday bread, and to be honest, I don't measure much of anything. I use a yeast measuring spoon that gives me the equivalent of a package of dry yeast, and I usually start with a cup of liquid. But the measuring stops there. I add flour by feel and I sometimes add more liquid as well. But this template is pretty close to the basic formula I follow.

Baking bread is something I really enjoy, and it’s become so much of my routine that it’s easier for me to make a loaf than run to the store. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought bread. I even make my own hamburger buns, pita bread and breadsticks.

I use the following template to start almost all of the breads I bake, but I seldom end here. My variations on this bread are endless, including different types of flour, herbs, flavorings, seeds and more. The formula works to keep me from going too far astray, though.

I use a stand mixer to knead the dough, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Basic Bread

1 package yeast (or equivalent)
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt (you can cut this to 1 teaspoon, but don’t eliminate all of it)
1 tablespoon oil (optional)

In the bowl of your stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the water, and add the sugar. If you’re using active dry yeast or cake yeast, you need to proof it (meaning that you wait until it bubbles, letting you know that the yeast is alive.) If you’re using instant yeast, you can skip the proofing, although it doesn’t hurt.

Add 1 cup of your bread flour and mix well. Cover with plastic and wait about 20 minutes. You should have a gooey bubbly mass.

Add 1 1/2 c of bread flour and the salt. Use the dough hook of the mixer and set it at the appropriate kneading speed for your machine. The dough will start off lumpy but eventually become a smooth, elastic ball. It should pick up the dough from the sides of the bowl. If you have a little “foot” of dough at the bottom that clings to the bowl, that’s fine.

You may need to add more flour, up to the entire 3 cups, depending the brand of flour, the humidity levels and the mood of the bread fairies. Don’t add the flour too quickly, though, or you could end up with a hard, dense mass. The surface should be a little tacky, but not gummy.

Slow down the kneading speed and add the oil. I usually use olive oil, but you can use just about anything. Once the oil is incorporated, speed up the kneading until you’re back at the correct speed, and let it go for a few minutes more.

Cover the bowl with plastic and let it rise until it has doubled in size. The warmer the room is, the faster it will rise. However, a slower rise will give you a tastier bread. You can put the dough in the fridge and let it rise very slowly (overnight) if you want to.

Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead it by hand a bit. You don’t want to add more flour to the dough, you just want enough to keep it from sticking.

Let it rest for 10 minutes or so, while you contemplate shape. You can use this dough to make a loaf of bread in a pan, a free-form ball, a dozen rolls, long baguettes or any other shape you can imagine. Have fun with it.

After shaping, let the dough rise, covered with plastic wrap until it has doubled in size again. To keep the bread from sticking to the wrap you can dust it with flour or coat it with oil. Either works, with different results.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes, depending on the shape and size your loaf. It should be nicely browned and sound hollow if you tap on it. Let it cool completely before cutting.


Sheila Ann said...

Hi Donna,

I DID IT!!!! The buns turned out amazing! You cannot believe how happy I am. I attempted the get sesame seeds on them, but realized that I really needed the egg wash, not just the spritz of olive oil I used to keep the plastic from sticking.

Thank you for this blog!

Donna Currie said...

Congrats, Sheila Ann!

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