Occasionally, I like to torture myself with the question: If trapped on a desert island with only one food to eat for the rest of your life, what food would you pick?
To insure my survival, I know I should pick something nutritionally balanced, like chia seeds or brown rice, but if I were being completely honest, hands down, my choice would be bread. Fragrant, warm, just-from-the-oven bread. I wouldn’t even need butter, although that would be a nice bonus.
Robert Browning wrote, “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” Robert and I are definitely on the same page. A mouthful of warm baguette can chase away just about any demon, at least temporarily. That is why I love to bake bread and give it away to everyone I know. I wrap up a fresh loaf in a new dishtowel and take it to my girls’ piano teacher, to the librarian at the local library who I especially like, or to an acquaintance who just lost her father. At Christmas, I add a ribbon and a holiday card, and give away baguettes to my hairdresser, our UPS driver, and my friends at the local used bookstore.
(Photo by Melissa Myers Place.)
I’ve found that a warm loaf of bread can serve as a thank you, a love note, or even an apology. Last year, just as we were headed out-of-town on a vacation, the rickety fence dividing our yard from our neighbor’s blew down, and we didn’t have time to reattach it. Upon our return, I baked a wow-we-were-lame-and-left-you-in-the-lurch loaf of sourdough for the couple next door who had fixed the fence in our absence. They loved the bread so much they asked if we had any other repair jobs that needed to be done.
I think part of the allure surrounding fresh bread is that the baking process seems like such a mysterious and difficult undertaking. Surprisingly, many people have told me that they’ve never made yeast bread, not once, ever–people who’ve raised children, risen through the ranks professionally, mastered many extracurricular activities yet are intimidated by the recipe for one of the staples of our American diet. Bread is so much a part of our daily lives that we will settle for spongy, store-bought loaves rather than do without. But as master chef Julia Child said, “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
Now more than ever, our country needs to renew its greatness, and so, maybe we need to learn collectively how to make our own bread.
Interestingly, the best bread is just a few simple ingredients–water, yeast, salt, and flour. Like most things, learning to make a decent loaf of bread takes practice. I’d attempted bread-baking while growing up, but I really learned to bake bread while working as a cook at a retreat center located in central Washington. Nestled in the woods alongside a lake, the retreat center was accessible by boat only. Supplies were shipped up once a week. The quantity of bread needed to serve 500 people per meal during the high season was more than we could have stored, which meant we made our own bread, every day, sometimes thirty loaves at a time.
We had a recipe taped to the wall that new cooks memorized within a week, and a floor-standing Hobart mixer with an enormous bread hook. The cook assigned to bread making would stand at the mixer, the bowl large enough to hide an average-size person, and throw in handfuls of salt, gallons of water, and scoopfuls of flour. Once we got the hang of it, most of us didn’t even measure. After the bread was mixed, the bread cook would grab a couple of fellow workers to wrestle the large bowl full of dough onto the counter. The bowl would be covered with plastic, and the dough left to rise until mid-morning. When the time was right, everyone working in the kitchen would meet at the bread table and together we would shape the loaves. After a half hour more of rising time, our bread was ready to go in the oven. It was that simple. What kind of bread was made depended on the cook on duty that day. Some bakers threw in seeds or oats while others used leftover bean soup or peanut butter. Some cooks preferred almost all whole wheat flour while the more popular cooks were heavy on the white flour. But in the end, it didn’t really matter what went into the dough, the final product that graced the tables in the dining room was fresh, delicious, and usually just the slightest bit warm.
After leaving the retreat center, I tried to keep up the tradition of only eating homemade bread I baked myself, but I found that I didn’t always have the time or inclination to hang around the kitchen all morning. My schedule was off kilter with bread making, but I didn’t want to give up those fresh loaves. I began researching bread recipes that were a little more flexible and cut down on the rising time, but didn’t compromise on taste. I tried a number of no-knead recipes, but found them dense and chewy. Other no-rise recipes turned out loaves that were flat and unappealing.
Finally, I stumbled on a quick yeast bread recipe in the wonderfully handy book The Tightwad Gazette II by frugal living expert Amy Dacyczyn. Although some of the ideas in her tome are wacky–my husband said a big N-O to drying and recycling coffee grounds for a second use–the recipes are always excellent, cheap, and easy. The “Faster Than A Speeding Bread Machine” recipe is no exception. All that is needed is a few ingredients and a cold oven. I experimented with the original recipe until I came up with my own moister version.
Bread So Fast It Will Make Your Head Spin
5-6 cups all-purpose flour (I use a combination of white and wheat flour.)
2 tablespoons of yeast
2 tablespoons of sugar
3 teaspoons of salt
2 cups of hot water
2 tablespoons of oil
Mix four cups of flour with yeast, sugar, and salt. Pour in hot water and beat vigorously 100 strokes, or three minutes with a mixer. Stir in the remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Knead eight minutes, or if your mixer has a bread hook attachment, mix until a well kneaded ball forms. Place the dough in a greased bowl, and cover with a damp towel. Let rise 15 minutes. Punch down. Divide dough in half. Shape into two round loaves and place on a greased cookie sheet, or shape into rectangles and place in greased bread pans. Place on the middle shelf of a COLD oven. On the lowest rack of the oven, place a muffin tin pan filled with hot water. Turn oven to 375 degrees, and bake 40 minutes or until golden brown on top and bottom. (If the loaves sounds hollow when you thump on the bottoms, they are done.) Remove loaves from pans immediately and let cool thoroughly on a wire rack before cutting.
This recipe is so foolproof that last spring, I used it during a baking lesson for a class of 4th through 8th graders. In groups of three, they measured, stirred, and kneaded their dough. In fact, they kneaded their dough with so much gusto that their loaves rose higher than any I’d ever made before. The students were beyond pleased with themselves as they admired their golden loaves cooling on the wire racks. After eating several slices at snack time, delicious even without butter, each student took their leftover bread and a copy of the recipe home with them. I sent them off hoping that some of the mystery of bread-making was revealed.
(Photo by Melissa Myers Place.)
While the Tightwad Gazette bread recipe is good, it is not versatile. I wanted something that was easy and quick, and would allow me to make a few bread sticks or a few dinner rolls as I cooked dinner. The refrigerator dough recipe from Joy of Cooking was rather flavorless and needed to be used within a few days. Other refrigerator bread recipes flat out didn’t work. Just when I thought maybe it was impossible to have spur-of-the-moment pizza crust or calzones, along came the amazing bread book called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. I think a more apt title would be Mix It, Fridge It, and Forget It ‘Til You Need It, because that is what I do. I mix up my adapted version of their Master Recipe (see below), put it in a large plastic container with a lid on the top shelf of my refrigerator, and forget about it until I need to make something such as hamburger buns or focaccia bread. It is that easy.
I can turn on the oven, grease up a baguette pan (I do recommend you buy a baguette pan, preferably the kind with holes in the bottom for browning), and stretch out a handful of dough. In twenty-five minutes, we have fresh bread for dinner and leftover sliced baguette pieces for french toast in the morning. A thick, fat layer of dough spread out over a perforated pizza pan (think pizza crust but about three times thicker), brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, and you have lovely golden focaccia bread that is perfect to take to a potluck or along on an impromptu picnic. On Saturday nights when I don’t feel like cooking, I spread a thin layer of dough on a pizza pan, and pre-bake the crust for ten minutes before topping with a little tomato sauce, olives, and grated cheese. I bake the topped pizza for five minutes more, and we have hot pizza faster than if we ordered it from the pizza parlor in town. My nine-year-old has even mastered breakfast Monkey Bread. She dips 1 inch balls of dough in butter and then cinnamon sugar, and places them in a greased pie plate, their edges just touching. Forty minutes later, she and her sister share a sugary morning treat.
My Adapted Master Recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day
3 cups hot water
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon sea salt
6 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose white flour or spelt flour
In a large bowl with a lid, mix yeast and sugar. Add hot water and stir vigorously with a whisk. Add 4 1/2 cups flour and salt to yeast mixture. Stir well with a wooden spoon. Add the last two cups of flour incorporating them into the dough completely. Dough will be loose, and no kneading is necessary. Sprinkle a handful of flour over the top of the dough and place it in the refrigerator. (I usually do this eight hours or so before I want to use the dough.)
When you are ready to bake, remove bowl from refrigerator. Sprinkle another handful of flour over the top of the dough. Grease whatever kind of baking pan you are using depending on the kind of bread you are making. Scoop up a grapefruit-size ball of dough and shape as desired (round loaves, bread loaves, rolls, focaccia, pizza crust, baguette, etc…) Allow to rest while preheating the oven to 450 degrees. On the lowest rack of the oven, place a muffin tin pan filled with hot water. Bake until bread is golden brown. (If bread sounds hollow when you thump on the bottom, it is done.) Remove pan immediately, and let bread cool thoroughly on a wire rack before cutting.
The Master Recipe allows me to make bread quickly for just about any occasion–when the kids’ teacher has had a long week, when a friend has been especially supportive, when I just want someone to know that I really like them a lot. To me, bread is love. It is home, it is American, it is wealth, it is the ultimate act of sharing, and it is holy. Nothing beats bread. It is all you would need on a desert island.
Note: Although the possibilities are endless using the Master Recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, I still recommend purchasing a copy of their book. Hertzberg and Francois offer excellent recipes to accompany any kind of bread you may choose to make. My husband is addicted to the Spicy Pork Buns on pages 88-90, and I have served the unique and delicious Portuguese Fish Stew featured on pages 84-85 several times to celebrate special occasions.