I've always been the type of person to read books with rural settings and watch old-fashioned television shows. You know the ones I mean...They were always set way back in the days and would feature Paw hitching up the wagon to go fetch Doc when someone was injured. Though the shows rarely featured anyone that looked like me, I always imagined myself living back in those times. Of course back then, the gender roles were pretty well defined and there wasn't much leeway in them. Rather than being the one going into town to fetch the Doc, I'd have likely been the one sweating over an open fire to make dinner out of whatever varmint Paw had managed to snare.
As an adult I embarked on a more self-sufficient lifestyle, trying my best to recreate some of those moments for my family. Making bread was one of those key elements that I desperately wanted to bring into our home. I mean how hard could it really be? Breadmaking has been going on since the beginning of recorded time, right? On tv, the woman of the house would start the breadmaking at the crack of dawn. It had to be easy because she likely hadn't had any coffee and was probably dozing as her hands found a familiar rhythmic kneading pattern in the dough. The family would gather around the dinner table at the end of a long, hard day of eking out a living and they'd break bread, often sharing the meal with a neighbor or a passerby.
I've found that even after more than 10 years of making bread, both by hand and with a bread machine, things still go awry. Most of my bread failures fall into two sports categories: bread that resembles a football in both size and texture & yeasty dinner rolls that resemble hockey pucks. There was that one unfortunate incident where the bread... Oh never mind...That story is just too embarrassing to share! Needless to say, I have become quite proficient at both making and breaking bread.
Over the years, I've determined that the secret to making good bread is to find one recipe and tweak it until you get it right. If you use a different recipe each time, you'll never learn what it takes to correct bad bread. There are only a few ingredients in a basic bread recipe: flour, water, yeast, oil, salt and a bit of sugar or honey.
The first bread that you'll want to experiment with is a basic white bread. Don't get caught up in the old white bread is inferior to wheat bread debate just yet. Instead, entertain the notion that any home baked white bread loaf will be infinitely superior to the plastic bagged version in your local supermarket. As a bonus it won't contain any of the ingredients that only a top chemist can pronounce. Bread making skills are honed on white bread and are perfected on wheat bread because it can be a bit tricky to make a finely grained loaf of wheat bread that doesn't damage your teeth when you bite it.
Here is my favorite white bread recipe to make two loaves:
2 packages of active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups of lukewarm water
1/2 cup of slightly warmed milk
2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon of salt
1/3 cup of cooking oil
7 1/4 cups of sifted flour
Dissolve yeast in the water. Add sugar, milk, oil and salt. Stir mixture
gently. Add about half of the flour to make a batter. Continue to stir to
ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout. Gradually
add enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Dough should not be so
sticky that it sticks to the sides of the bowl. If after adding the
remaining flour, you find that the dough is still sticky, you may add up to
an additional 1/4 cup of flour. Extra flour should only be added in small
increments and not all at once.
While still in the bowl, cover the dough with a towel or lid and allow it
to rest for 20 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Start
kneading, after about 5 minutes it will become smooth. (Do not over
knead...This will make for a tougher bread texture.)Divide dough into two
equal portions and form each into a loaf. Place into two greased 9x5 inch
loaf pans. Let dough rise again until it has doubled in size. This can take
anywhere from an hour to an hour & a half. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and
bake for 30-35 minutes. When properly baked, bread will sound hollow when
you tap on it. Remove the loaves from the pans and allow them to cool.
To keep the crust soft, you can massage the entire loaf with a little butter. Some people may balk at this, citing the additional calories that are added. However, kneading bread is really good exercise for the arms, so those calories were likely burned and you'll have well-toned arms to show for your efforts! In this society where things are often done at the touch of a button, we sometimes forget that those pioneer women of the past got their exercise through a hardscrabble lifestyle and not a treadmill. If only we owned a butter churn, I could give up the gym membership and still have arms to rival those of First Lady Michelle Obama ...