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10 August 2011

Making Bread is Easy, Promise!

I keep hearing people say how intimidated they are be making bread, specifically yeast breads. I guess my Dad did me a bigger favor than I knew when he said, early in my teen years, "Hey, why don't you make some bread?" I grabbed one of Mom's cookbooks, made a big mess (failure to clean up said mess nearly got me booted from the kitchen), and made some bread. Nobody told me it was difficult, so it never occurred to me to think it was. Looking back, I'm sure those first loaves wouldn't be winning any contests. But they made my Dad smile; he said I did well, and that was all the encouragement I needed! With the tough economic times, making bread is an easy way to reduce the grocery bill. Even a little homemade bread will make a difference in our grocery budget. I usually also make our english muffins, sometimes I take on bagels, and occasionally I'll make tortillas. I like homemade tortillas, but Monkey loves to help and he slows that process down a lot. Basic bread, though, doesn't mind the small helpers much. Let 'em mix, let 'em "knead" and off you go, no problem.

Bread, like any other skill, gets easier and better with practice. Don't feel like because the first batch didn't work out, it never will. As you get the hang of what the dough feels like (soft, not dry, but not *quite* sticky) you'll learn how to do it. Every batch of flour is a little different, so don't stick hard and fast to the recipe - if it's a bit dry add at tbsp of water, if it's a little sticky, add a little more flour. No kittens will die if it's not perfect ! I have a kitchen aid, but I don't like to use it for bread (makes the bowl super hard to get off to wash), so I always mix and knead by hand. About 2-3 cups of flour will make a nice size loaf, or a pizza crust, or sometimes we roll it out a cut it with simple cookie cutters, or run the pizza cutter through to make bread sticks. Bread is actually very forgiving, once you get the hang of it. Here's my favorite recipe. I have made it so many times now that I hardly measure anymore, so the amounts are approximate. This recipe began its life as a pizza dough recipe, so I'll give those instructions first.

Pizza or Bread Sticks or "Fish Bread" or Loaves
1 cup water, lukewarm
2 1/2 flour
1 t salt
generous dash sugar
~2 T oil
1 T yeast
pizza spices (opt)

Put yeast in water, set aside. Mix flour (may sub up to 1c whole wheat, I haven't really tested past that), salt, sugar, oil, and pizza spices if desired. Yeast should be beginning to make the water cloudy, then foam up a bit. Sometimes I put a little sugar in the water to help it along. Pour yeast/water mixture into flour. Stir.

At this point I always have to adjust the flour/water ratio a bit. I keep my flour bucket next to me as I work and toss a little more in as needed. I often start with dough that's dry, so I add some water, but inevitably it's too wet. If It's only a tiny bit too wet, let it sit 10 minutes. Some of my best bread has happened when I let wet dough sit 10 minutes; it gets more workable. Once you have the water/flour right, then you knead it. And when you think it's done, knead it some more. And a little more for extra measure. Your mouth will thank you! Then, roll it out. If I'm doing pizza, I roll it right on my pizza stone. If I'm making bread sticks, I roll them on the counter, cut into strips with my pizza cutter, and move the strips to the pizza stone. If I'm doing "fish bread" we roll it out, cut it with cookie cutters, and repeat, just like cookies. Knead a bit between batches, and if it gets too tough, let it rest 10-15 minutes before you roll it ought again. Bake about 8 min at 400F. Then either build your pizza or brush with some garlic butter. YUM!

If you want bread for loaves, reduce the oil or eliminate it altogether (I forget it half the time anyway... not a big deal, though it tastes better for the pizza-type stuff). Knead, same as before, till you're sick of it and then just a little longer. Oil a clean bowl, spin the dough around in there so it's got oil on every side, then flip a towel over and ignore it for an hour. Should be around twice as big. If it's not, give it an extra 1/2 hour. If it's chilly in the house, I'll stick it in the oven with the light on - but cover it with plastic wrap, cuz that will dry it right out. Pull it out of the bowl, and shape it into whatever makes you happy. Sometimes I'll round it a bit by tucking at the bottom so the top stretches smooth a bit, then put it on my pizza stone. I like to score the top with a knife a little - it's pretty. Sometimes I'll shape it into an oval, and those fit nicely into a loaf pan. Bake at 350F, and start keeping an eye on it around 20 minutes. When it's done it should be golden brown, it should smell heavenly (that's the biggest clue), and if you tip it out of the pan, the bottom will be golden brown, and done.

This clip of Julia Child was super helpful to me, though she and her friend are WAAAAY more fussy than I am. But the stuff they say about flour, and about kneading the bread, I learned a lot from. YouTube has a number of great clips. I learned how to braid challah from YouTube a while back. That's pretty - and easy too, once you've seen the video! Happy Baking!

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