“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts!” - James Beard
I must confess that I don’t eat much bread
. At meal times, I’d rather have my food without bread, and at breakfast who needs bread or toast, if one can have cake? Besides which, I seldom eat sandwiches. However, there are occasions when I must have bread, especially if the bread is fresh out of the oven and home-made. The taste of freshly-baked bread lavishly spread with butter is wonderful! Strangely enough there is myth that making bread is difficult. It’s not actually if one understands the biology and the chemistry of it. The idea that it is time consuming is also a myth. Time spent in preparation is very quick, but of course, you have to leave the dough lying around for a long time so that it can rise.
Things that can go drastically wrong when you make bread are that you burn it (turn the oven down) or that it doesn’t rise. If it doesn’t rise, you may have used old yeast or you may have scalded it – remember it’s a living organism! Yeast lasts for quite a long time (around 6 months), and will last even longer if kept in the fridge or freezer. Incidentally, never buy yeast in those small foil sachets in the supermarkets. It is seriously over-packaged and very, very expensive. Buy your yeast in bulk from a fine establishment like health food store. Also, don't get confused and buy brewer’s yeast; you need granulated yeast. The water that you use to suspend the yeast in, should be around 35°C, but the best way of telling is by testing the water on your wrist. It should warm, but not at all hot, just like a baby’s milk bottle.
Always remember, the amount of flour is only a rough guide; flour absorbency varies greatly, and it is not difficult to tell when your dough is the right consistency, if you add the water carefully. Some bread recipes include sugar and honey, but these are not essential and can make the bread sickly sweet. If the water is the right temperature and you knead your bread well, you don’t need the “extras”. Salt is needed as it does add so much to taste (as does a little oil, I guess).
Here is a recipe for wheat germ bread, which is much more reliable than wholemeal bread:
Wheat Germ Bread
7 cups white unbleached flour
1 cup wheat germ
1 tablespoon dry (granulated) yeast
2.5 cups warm water
2 teaspoonfuls salt
2 tablespoonfuls olive oil
Mix the yeast with about 1/2 cup of the warm water. Leave for about 10 minutes, by which time the yeast should have begun to foam.
Put the flour, wheat-germ and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, and pour in the yeast mixture. Stir and add the oil and the remaining water gradually, always stirring, until the dough forms a ball but doesn't become so sticky that it sticks to your fingers. There is no precise way of knowing when your dough will be ready except by experience... You really have to go on how the dough feels and looks. As you knead you can add more water or flour if it is needed. Thankfully, bread isn’t one of those things that require a perfect balance of ingredients. Furthermore, once you've made bread a few times you will learn to tell exactly when your dough is right.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board. Every so often sprinkle the board with more flour as you knead, or the dough will stick. Knead by pushing the heels of your hand into the dough, folding it back on itself, turning it around, and generally giving it a good work out. Kneading generally takes about 10 minutes but again the best way to tell is by experience and just by feeling it. It should be satiny, springy, elastic and smooth.
Put the dough in a bowl and cover with a clean, damp tea-towel. Leave somewhere warm to rise (under a blanket in winter). It will take between one and three hours to rise, depending on the ambient temperature. You can tell when it’s ready in two ways: Firstly, it should have doubled in bulk. Secondly, give it a little poke with your finger. If the indentation disappears let it rise some more. If it stays in the dough, it is ready to be shaped.
Now, take out your aggression by punching the dough down. Knead for about 3 minutes, and then shape the dough. The possibilities here are endless. Loaves, rolls, plaits, twists, knot rolls, cottage loaves, wherever your imagination takes you. Put your loaves or rolls or whatever onto a greased pan or bread tray, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to “prove” (i.e. rise again; this is quicker than the initial rising, and will take about 45 minutes).
Bake in a preheated oven at 190°C. Loaves should be left to cook for about 40 minutes, rolls need about 20 minutes. The bread is ready when it has a nice brown crust. Also, you can tip the loaf out of its pan, and tap its base. It should sound hollow. If it doesn’t, put it back in the tin and leave it bake for a little while longer.
Once you've mastered the basic principles of bread making the possibilities are infinite. You can just do about anything you like as long as you include yeast and balance the ingredients to get the same smooth, elastic dough.
Suggested additions include:
Herbs and spices: Whatever you like in whatever mixture.
Seeds: Sesame, linseed, sunflower, poppy.
Sprouted grains: Rice, wheat, lentils.
Vegetables, mashed: eg. potato and pumpkin; grated: eg. carrot, beetroot, parsnips, potato; or chopped: eg. onion or spinach.
Whole grains: Barley, rice, cracked wheat (these should be cooked first).
Different flours: Rye, buckwheat, rice, potato, soy, gluten, cornmeal. Bread can't be made from these flours alone (well, not using the basic recipe given above), rye can be used for about half of the flour, gluten should be used for more than a cup or two.
More exotic additions are grated parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, sun-dried capsicum. Either added to the dough, or just sprinkled on top.
Now that I have said that I seldom eat bread, I should rephrase it. I seldom eat bread, but would love to have it more often as a full meal. Some bread and salad, or bread with cheese and some wine, or bread and butter…
Hmmm, let’s bake some bread and enjoy!