The comfort of bread
Whenever I face complicated or difficult times, I seem to gravitate towards the largest mixing bowl on my shelf. I fill it with flour, yeast, salt and water. Then I start the process of making a big batch of bread. It seems to work every time. I focus only on being in my kitchen, as if this place is the center of the universe and making bread is the only important work I have to do.
Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve settled on something of a small repertoire of bread recipes in my kitchen: quick breads and brioche at breakfast, pizzas and crusty milk rolls for lunch, Indian naan bread and delicious dark fruit and nut bread for appetizers, and classic French baguettes and boules, sourdough and honey-wheat breads at dinnertime.
I started my bread-making career as a young woman living in a small two-room cabin along a remote river in Alaska. We had two small babies and no running water. It was a big adventure for me — to discard my career as an urban professional and embrace rural living. Making homemade bread was one of the first challenges I tackled. The image of bread being kneaded onto a wooden surface, floury hands wiped clean with a tea towel, and the yeasty smell of baking bread epitomized for me the new life I was creating with my family.
Fast-forward thirty years. We have running water now. The babies are long grown up. Things have begun to change in our little corner of Alaska. But, I still love the same old bread recipe I have been making for all these years.
It goes as follows: Add three cups of warm water to two packages of dry yeast. Add in one-quarter cup of fireweed honey and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, mix together one cup of powdered milk and four cups of flour (this can be a mixture of white, whole wheat or bread flour – whatever you prefer). Combine the yeast mixture into the dry flour mixture and mix well. Let it sit for about an hour. Add in one-third cup olive oil and a heaping tablespoon of salt. Mix in three more cups of flour into the mixture or until the dough forms a ball and can be kneaded. Place the dough onto a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes. Let the dough rise for about an hour (covered with a tea towel). Shape the dough into two loaves or rounds and let them rise for another half-hour or so. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the bread loaves with a beaten egg and bake for about an hour, checking towards the end to make sure the bread crust doesn’t get too dark.
This recipe originated from “The Tassajara Bread Book” by Edward Espe Brown. My copy of this slim brown paperback book is now spattered with stains and the spine is ungluing, so I just keep the book on my bookshelf as an icon to those early years.
When my daughter Mandy came home from pastry school, she told me I don’t need to proof the yeast in warm water, that salt could damage the yeast, and — most controversial of all in my kitchen — I didn’t need to knead the dough.
“Just mix in all the ingredients, stir, and let it rise,” she said.
Change can be hard. I still find myself kneading our no-knead bread recipe when Mandy isn’t looking.
- 3 cups bread flour
- 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
- teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1⅓ cups water (cool, 55 to 65 degrees)
- Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a medium bowl. Add in the water and stir to mix. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and set the bowl at room temperature for about 12-18 hours.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, shape it into a round by tucking the edges of the dough into a seam, cover the dough in a floured tea towel and let rise again in a warm place for two hours.
- Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Put a heavy pot with a lid (like a Le Creuset casserole or a Dutch oven) in the oven to heat.
- Carefully remove the hot pot from the oven and invert the dough into the pot, seam-side up. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the lid and continue to bake an additional 15 minutes or until the crust is a deep brown color.
- Cool the bread before slicing into it.
So, when the world seems overwhelming and complicated for you, consider making some homemade bread, kneaded or not.