November 2004

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Baking Bread

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Baking Bread

by Ingrid Gulliksen, WSGC Staff

Freshly baked bread—it’s one of life’s greatest delights, yet it’s the most simple of pleasures. The calming and comforting aroma of bread baking in the oven says “home” like nothing else. I have fond childhood memories of my grandmother’s pungent and sweet Norwegian cardamom bread—smelling its tantalizing aroma wafting from the oven was almost (but not quite!) as good as eating it!

The importance of bread
The staff of life, our daily bread, breaking bread together—our expressions show how bread, the most basic of all foods, is as much a part of our language as it is a part of our meals.

Although bread is prepared in many different ways around the world, here in the United States the most popular method is based on the combination of water, yeast, and wheat flour. A member of the grass family, wheat was first grown in Asia Minor and has been cultivated for about ten thousand years. The wheat grain is one of nature’s perfect foods, and is full of energy and low in fat, containing protein, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Grains from the variety of wheat known as “hard” are used to produce flour for bread. In their delightful The Bread Book, Linda Collister and Anthony Blake state that “Good, nourishing bread has been held in high esteem since the age of the Pharaohs, and rightly so. The bread you eat today is a slice of social history. The basic ingredients, used by those ancient Egyptians, have remained unchanged-flour, salt, water, and usually leavening… Our modern bread can be as fancy or simple, sophisticated or rustic as we choose.”

The art of bread making
Some are experienced in the art of bread making and bake their own bread so regularly that they have no need for recipes or written directions; others bake bread only occasionally and like to have written instructions on hand to refer to. And still others have never baked bread, and although the idea intrigues them, they’re hesitant to attempt it because it all just seems so complicated and difficult. From my own personal experience as a self-taught bread maker, I can say with some authority that all that is necessary to produce a perfect loaf is a clearly written, preferably illustrated recipe and a few hours’ time. Baking your own bread does not have to be an ordeal; it can be easy, creative and fun! And the more practiced you become, the more streamlined the entire process becomes. The perfect recipe for your individual bread-making needs, as well as helpful bread-making hints and tips, is as close as your favorite bookstore or public library. Both basic all-purpose cookbooks and specialized bread books can provide you with all the information you need to create your own homemade breads. The very first step in making bread is to read through the recipe carefully, and the second step is to assemble all necessary equipment and ingredients and have them nearby and ready to use.

The basic loaf
Here is the recipe for “The Basic Loaf” as described in Collister and Blake’s The Bread Book:

Ingredients (Makes 1 large “free form” loaf):
3 cups unbleached white bread flour, preferably stone-ground
3 cups whole-wheat bread flour, preferably stone-ground
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt, crushed or ground
1 0.6-ounce cake fresh yeast or 1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/2teaspoons) plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar, or 1 envelope rapid-rise active dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
extra flour for dusting and sprinkling
A large baking sheet, lightly greased

In a large bowl, mix together the white flour, whole-wheat flour, and the salt. In very cold weather, warm the bowl of flour in a 250 degree oven for 5 to 8 minutes, or microwave on high for 1/2 to 1 1/2 minutes—this will help the yeast start working.
Fresh yeast method: with your fingers, crumble the cake of fresh yeast into a small bowl, and mix about 1/2 cup of the measured lukewarm water with the yeast until smooth. Make a well about 6 inches wide in the center of the flour-salt mixture, add the yeast mixture, and pour the rest of the lukewarm water into the well.
Draw a little flour into the well and mix thoroughly with the liquid. Gradually mix in more flour until you have a thick, smooth batter in the well. Sprinkle the batter with a little white flour to prevent a skin from forming, then let the batter stand for about 20 minutes until it becomes aerated and frothy and expands nearly to fill the well: this is called the “sponge” process. With your hands, gradually mix the rest of the flour-salt combination in the bowl into the batter.

Active dry yeast method: Reconstitute the yeast by sprinkling it over a small bowl containing 1/4 cup warm water (105-115 degrees F) and 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar. Stir until yeast is dissolved and mixture is smooth, then allow mixture to remain undisturbed for 5 to 10 minutes until it becomes very foamy. Add this foamy yeast mixture to a well in the flour-salt mixture and make the sponge as described in the fresh yeast method. With your hands, gradually mix the rest of the flour-salt combination in the bowl into the batter.

Rapid-rise dry yeast method: Sprinkle the contents of the envelope of yeast directly into the flour-salt combination, add all of the lukewarm water at once, then use your hands to mix together all of the ingredients.

Gather dough into a ball—it should be firm and should not stick to the sides of the bowl. If dough is dry, add lukewarm water 1 tablespoon at a time; if sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time.

Turn dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes.

To knead, stretch the dough away from you, then gather back into a ball, then give dough a quarter turn; continue repeating these three movements.

As dough is kneaded, it changes texture to become very smooth and elastic, almost glossy. Shape the dough into a smooth ball.

Wash, dry, and oil the bowl in which the dough was mixed.

Return dough to bowl, turn dough over so top is oiled (to prevent sticking), cover the bowl with a damp dish towel.

Let the dough rise at about 70ºF, away from drafts, until doubled in size; this usually takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

When the dough is properly risen, you can press the tip of your finger into it and it doesn’t spring back.
Punch down the dough with your knuckles—this breaks up large carbon dioxide pockets and helps produce an even-textured loaf.

On a lightly floured surface, shape the dough by gently kneading it into an 8 x 4 inch oval; with the edge of your hand, make a deep lengthwise crease down the center of the oval, and roll the sides of the dough over (upwards) to make a fat sausage-shape.

Tuck the short ends of the dough under and pinch all seams together (forming one seam) to seal them; then roll dough over so that the seam is underneath and the top looks smooth and evenly shaped—the oval will now measure about 9 x 4 inches.

Put this oval, seam down, onto a greased baking sheet; then make 1/2-inch deep diagonal slashes on top of the oval, and cover with a damp dish towel, and let rise until doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

During the last 15 minutes of the final rising time, heat the oven to 425ºF; then uncover the loaf and sprinkle the top with about 1 tablespoon of whole-wheat flour.
Bake the loaf for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 375ºF and continue baking for another 20 to 30 minutes.

To test if the loaf if baked through, carefully turn it upside down and tap it with your knuckles—a thoroughly baked loaf sounds hollow. If the loaf sounds dense or heavy, bake it for 5 minutes longer, then test again.

Transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool completely.

Other varieties
In this country, rye bread ranks second in popularity after wheat bread. Rye dough is notoriously sticky and difficult to handle, so for this reason rye flour is frequently blended with other flours to create a more manageable dough. Other varieties of delicious, nutritious bread are made using flour from spelt, barley, buckwheat, cornmeal, millet, oatmeal, and rice.

Homemade bread day
If you’re feeling inspired to bake your own bread, what occasion could be more appropriate than November 17th, Homemade Bread Day? Whether you prepare it by hand or with a bread machine (a marvelous invention!), and regardless of what recipe you use or what kind of bread you make, everyone loves homemade bread. So roll up your sleeves, set aside some time, and create a delicious and nutritious
masterpiece that is uniquely your own!