Every morning, if you came to our house, you would find a trail of bread crumbs. Little pools of crumbs underneaths chairs, collecting there from the little hands that fling about while demonstrating dance moves and eating toast. I do try to instill good manners in my children with constant reminders to lean over plates, keep food in plates and please for the love of your yet-unspilled milk, don’t try new dance moves at the table, and so on. But it seems the crumbs never abate. Every morning, crumbs greet your toes as you bring the milk to the table, crunch underfoot as you head to the linen closet for another washcloth and circle around you as you stand at the toaster, waiting for the “pop!”.
And so the call for bread in house is constant! We make most of our bread. And so the need to make bread is a constant as well.I’m lucky in that one of my favourite things to cook is bread. It’s one of those things I know my kids will eat. I don’t need to go find a recipe to make it. It calls for the simplest of ingredients.
Probably the easiest way to learn to bake bread is to start with a simple white loaf bread. But after that, with a bit of know-how on what makes bread rise, the timing and ingredients that impart different flavours, you can easily move from that simple recipe to making up bread recipes.
Three things to consider in making your own bread recipe, the flavour, the purpose of the bread (toast, dipping, french toast, croutons, etc) and how much time you have until you need the bread.
The first thing to know is the there are three main components to bread: flour, moisture and leavening, which is the stuff that makes bread puffy and fluffy. Leave one out and you’ll head off in a completely different direction than bread. How you put all three ingredients together is completely dependant on the three things you considered when making bread.
Bread is forgiving in the fact that it is completely flexible. Do you have a half hour tonight and some more time tomorrow after work? Perfect! Or are you thinking of spending Saturday morning schlepping coffee and reading in your pajamas? Again, that works perfectly too!
I actually prefer to break my bread making up over a couple of days. It slows it down, makes the making more thoughtful and keeps the messes tiny. I’ll mix the flour and water together to make a sloopy paste and let it sit on a warm counter for the night. That helps all the wonderful wild yeasts streaming through the air to settle in and start doing their thing with the flour. I add more moisture than I would with the Saturday morning bread to help the yeasts move more easily through the flour.
Leaving dough out to collect wild yeasts works especially well in autumn. But it also works here in winter too. I just try to make sure the dough isn’t sitting in a particularly drafty spot which may hold up the yeasty action. Sometimes I let it sit without commercial yeast, other times I’ll add a titch of yeast to help boost the bubbling action.
But if you are planning to relax with coffee, put some music on, and spend time in your kitchen getting reacquainted with flour, food and loved ones after a busy week, break out a recipe for a simple loaf. These recipes seem to start with two cups of warm water, a tablespoon of granular yeast and a teaspoon of sugar to help convince the yeast to get revved up. After waiting a few minutes to let the yeast proof, a few cups of flour and a half teaspoon of salt are added. Things are usually stirred until a slightly stick ball of dough is formed. Then, hands are ready, sleeves rolled up and the kneading begins.
The rhythm of kneading is tiring and satisfying. Find a window to look out, place your bowl of dough on a sturdy surface, and begin folding the dough toward you and then pushing back and away from you. Over the next ten minutes or so, your fingers and hands can test the consistency, the stretch, the feeling of something being alive.
Place in warm place, covered with a tea towel, make a fresh coffee, and sit down as you have nothing to but wait. Bread dough is a living thing. You’re going to wait now for the sugars to be consumed by the yeast and the resulting gases trapped by the gluten that you’ve stretched and strengthened with kneading to raise the dough.
Punch it down, form it to make an even looking elongated ball, and place it in an oiled bread pan. Let it rise again until doubled. Put in a 350 F oven and bake for about 45 minutes.
How long you let your bread sit to rise, the types of flour you use, and other ingredients you might feel the call for all work together to create flavour.
For me, the best type of leavening is yeast. I prefer the slightly nutty, alcoholic flavours yeast imparts compared to baking soda or baking powder that can have a metallic, bitter taste. I have found that the longer and slower the rise, the leavening and fermenting dance between the yeasts and flours makes for a deeper, more sour taste.
And then there are all the options of what you can add to make a distinct in its time and place. Around Easter, when the hens are let out to scavenge and return to the coop to lay eggs with orange-hued yolks, I’ll make a paska loaf. The deep coloured yolks bring a yellow tinge to the bread and the egg itself makes for a dense, chewy but soft slice.
In the fall, when root vegetables abound and we are readying to store them in pails of sand in the cold room, beet borscht makes its way to the supper table between mounds of vegetables greens and stacks of canning jars. The leftover cup of rolled oats from the breakfast post are stirred into the water yeast mixture with a couple of tablespoons of molasses to make a darker bread that complements the earthy vegetables.
Winter and the cold room go hand in hand. We are fortunate in our farming neighbours grow organic and seed wheat. We can head off to a farm for a quick chat and a pail of wheat. We can then grind the wheat for the principal flour and also to sprout or toast the wheat berries as a bread addition.
French toast, dipping bread, bread salad with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. The flavour of the bread can largely determine the purpose of the bread. There are breads more flexible than others, without stridently flavoured ingredients. These breads are usually white breads or less than half wholewheat. I tend to forego things like molasses or herb flavourings. Eggs, milk and fats are still welcome additions.
If I’m thinking I might want to make cinnamon or apple buns of school lunches, I’ll add an egg or two to the dough and replace a portion of the water with milk and melted butter.
Sometimes leftover chicken needs to be made into a stew. That day I’ll try to bring together a crusty bread, one that doesn’t require kneading and is a fast bake in a hot oven. These are the types of bread with thicker crusts and they tend to sing and crackle as they cool on wire racks. These are my favourites.
Or a quick supper before a mad dash to hockey practice will call for a dough with a scattering of olive oil and a little more salt. I press it flat, sprinkle veg and cheese on it and bake it in a hot oven for 15 minutes.
I’ll be honest. I’m still learning and have come to realize there will always be learning there, waiting for me if I’d like it. One other thing I’ve come to realize is that bread making is a forgiving art for beginners. Flour and water are cheap. A flattened bread that refused to rise, or a dry bread can still be used as croutons or crisps for soups and salads. Toasting any bread, slathered with butter and jam, promises improvements on even the sketchiest of loaves.
Best to not be intimidated, better to get out a big bowl, tie up your apron and work some magic.