Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Making Bread

I'm in the process of making bread, for the Thanksgiving table. I just accomplished the sponge step. The yeast are now busily consuming sugar and converting to CO2. Yes, the secret to bread is yeast farts. But it smells good, tastes good. Not an onerous task, either. I enjoy making bread but don’t do it much nowadays. I should get back to it.

Baking bread for holidays and special occasions rings true. For one, homemade bread is better, period. Two, the making has an almost ceremonial aspect. Lammas Day, which is my birthday, is the day the harvest is consecrated. From the Old English for Loaf Mass. This doesn’t make me a baker, I just note the importance of bread.

In the day, I used to make eight loaves a week, four at a time. This was for Erin, Beth, my father and me. The first loaf would be gone before cooled, still warm from the oven enchantment. It should never count as a loaf, we disappeared it before it existed.

Beth routinely handed out loaves to people like the mailman, or when visiting. A simple gift that people took much pleasure in. Bread is a staple as much as any food.

I’ve baked bread since I was young, single digits even. I used various recipes. I became more serious about it when I got the Tassajara Bread Book. That book, by a baker at a Zen center, expanded on the thoughtfulness of the process. Without over-zenning it, he made each step, and the addition of each ingredient, singular, important, and worthy of consideration.

I have nothing against bread machines. They are convenient. I won’t knock that. I find bread making a pleasure, with many sensual and tactile components. The way the ingredients change within the process stimulates a certain feeling like awe. Why leave that feeling to the machine?

I made many of the recipes in the Tassajara book, tried a lot of different ingredients and flours. The book, in fact, is just about edible, since it was handled many times by dough-covered hands. I even made unyeasted bread, which is something of a practical joke to play on the unwary (including the unwary gut). Unyeasted bread is leaden nourishment at best. At worst it is something to discreetly ignore until the appearance of mold makes it okay to discard the loaf.

I have to admit that I favour plain old white bread, but I like adding other flours (oat, rye, barley (toasted), and rice). I’ve also added things like lecithin and soy protein powder. I don’t even remember why I added lecithin except that it’s good for you. The bread was lovely wit it, I remember.

I had to check the recipe today, since it has been a while since I made bread. Used to be I didn’t need a crib, it was in my head. Anyway, you can’t be too specific in following measurements. The amount of extra flour one might use on a humid day is considerably greater than on a dry day.

I start by adding yeast to warm water. Just to make the yeast happy, I add some form of sugar, like honey or agave. The yeast can get by without it, but I want them to feel inspired.

If you watch, the yeast and water will start to show activity. Nothing violent, but one realizes that cooking is chemistry. I let it bubble for a bit before adding flour. I tend to add the flour by greater quantities than the recipe says, that’s mere impatience. The flour at first clumps up in what seems like intractable clumps, as if it will never mix with the water. Persevere, Pilgrim!

The recipe says stir one hundred times. I dip the spoon down the side and swing it around the bowl’s side. After a few strokes, blending seems possible. You can see the dough becoming more elastic. I count the full 100 strokes, and only a few more. Supposedly you can overdo it, but by the 100th stroke, things look pretty good, and my arm’s tired.

The sponge rises for an hour or so. When squished for time, I’ve gone less, much less. I’ve also gone much longer, when I’ve been distracted. The bread forgives.

There is something here about the creative act. Certainly there is an alchemical transmutation of base element, which perhaps isn’t a nice thing to say about those stalwart yeast cells. Thank you for the bread, Yeast Friends, and the wine and beer!

I’ve skipped steps, forgotten ingredients, over- or underextended rises, and something breadlike has resulted. The rules offer guidance, not stricture.

In cool weather, I’ll turn the oven on for a few seconds and stick the dough to rise there. Turns out that that incandescent bulb in the oven provides a suitable, non-yeast-killing, temperature.

The next step begins hopelessly. You’re supposed to stir in the remaining flour (for 4 loaves, a five pound bag roughly does the job). For me, the dough isn’t stirable so I just scrape the dough onto the counter and dump the remaining flour on. It doesn’t look like it will happen: the inchoate mass cannot possibly become an amalgamated dough. Eventually, by pushing the dough and flour together, using a scraper to push the mass and clean the counter, a bread-like dough replaces the previous glop. Kneading will bring the former glop to dough perfection. Trust me, it will happen. The dough becomes smooth with a silky surface. I have maximized the available gluten.

I ball the mass up, pour oil over it, and let it rise once more. Just like with my joke telling, I forgot to mention a few things I should have added earlier: oil and salt. These are withheld from the sponge so that yeast activity won’t be hindered. I’ve added eggs in my time but I don’t really care for the cakiness that results. I’ve also forgotten to add eggs and oil. Without oil isn’t too noticeable but lack of salt is.

The second rise means I get to punch it down. The whoosh of yeasty gas is pleasant. The dough is easy to work with. I cut it into four equal parts. Shaping the loaf is important otherwise you get a poor rise, or misshapen loaf.

I shape the dough into a loaf. I can’t explain it well but I roll and pull it with my hand so that there is tension at the top. Then I pinch the seam on the underside. I pull and pinch the ends the same way. I place this dough loaf against one side of a bread pan to support it in its final rise. Ayn Rand comes to mind suddenly, but let it pass. With luck I will have remembered to oil the pan before placing the dough in it.

Sometimes I will cut each quarter into thirds, roll them into sausages then braid them to form a loaf. Lardy dardy. It is food first of all. Pass that test then let Martha Stewart take over.

Brush with melted butter or egg wash, sprinkle with salt, wheat germ, or sesame seeds. Or, moat likely, none of the above. Bake. I’m big on underbaking, then cutting a loaf, realizing the fact with a gasp and returning the loaves to the oven. You may want to try patience, instead. The first loaf will soon be gone. The next, the alternate first, will be for dinner. The other two can be frozen, once cooled. Or just leave them out and finish them off tomorrow.

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