Apr 4, 2009

Nothin' But Lovin' From The Oven

Let's face it, there's nothing that fills up the senses quite like traditional white yeast bread. Not only is kneading the soft pillowy dough by hand and shaping the loaves therapeutic, but the smell of freshly baked loaves wafting from the kitchen, filling the entire house with love, is enough to heal any soul. Not to mention the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment you get when you see that light white fluffy cloud stretch when gently pulled apart and then, with the first bite, taste that tender buttery crust on your tongue. Ahhh, pure heaven.

Heaven is closer than you think, in fact, only a mere couple of hours away. It's also a lot easier than one might think, only requiring a few simple staple ingredients, a little know how, and no special equipment except your two loving hands. Well, ok, I'll be honest. I do use my handy dandy Kitchen Aid mixer for the heavy duty kneading part, but even still, I mix and do the last part of the kneading by hand. However, I don't own a bread machine, to me, it does something (weird) to the texture of bread and there's no control over the texture of the crust. It's just not the same. So don't go asking me about adapting any of my recipes for bread machines...I haven't a clue. But here, I'll give you the basic recipe for yeast bread, basic steps and basic what-to-knows about bread making. If you're new to bread baking, this is an excellent start. Get this under your belt and the possibilities are endless. It may take you a couple of times to get the "feel" for it, but believe me, it's well worth the effort!

Traditional White Yeast Bread

2 ¼ C Very warm water (110-115 degrees F)
2 pkgs ( 4 ½ tsp) Active dry yeast
3 Tbsp Sugar (may omit sugar)
2 Tbsp Melted shortening, cooled
1 Tbsp Salt
5- 5 1/2 C Bread Flour
Melted butter
Shortening for greased bowl

First things first, I'm using active dry yeast granules (NOT fast rising). Also, always check the expiration date on the package or jar. Expired (dead) yeast = bricks. Next thing to remember is always prepare, mix and allow the yeast bread to rise in a warm (moist) environment. So, I fill the mixer bowl all the way up with very warm tap water and let it sit in the sink to warm up while I gather the ingredients. I measure out the shortening and melt it in the microwave (takes less than 30 sec), set that aside to cool slightly. I generously grease a glass bowl and set that aside. Then, I dump the water out of the mixer bowl and replace it with the (measured) 2 1/4 Cups of very warm tap water. It needs to be  degrees105-110 Fahrenheit. Too hot and it will kill the yeast, too cold and the yeast won't activate and the dough won't rise. So yeah, if you have to, use an instant read  thermometer for the first couple of times, until you get a feel for the right temp.

Next, sprinkle the yeast granules on top of the water and let sit to dissolve for about 5 minutes. Once it's dissolved, stir it, then add in the sugar and stir again. Let that sit for about 5 min. It should form bubbles slightly, this means the yeast is active. (it's called "proofing" the yeast) While this step isn't completely necessary if you've checked the date on the package, one can never be too safe.  If the yeast clumps up a bit, don't sweat it, it'll get mixed in.

Next, add in about 3 1/2 cups of the flour, then the salt and finally, the melted shortening. (in that order) The reason you want to add the flour first, before the salt, is that salt may hinder and interfere with the yeast action. The flour sort of acts as a "buffer" if you will.  I do this part by hand in order to do it quickly, and I scrape the sides of the bowl. It should be pretty sticky and gooey.

Now attach the bowl to the stand mixer and attach the dough hook. Add in another cup of the flour and mix on speed 2 (we're up to 4 1/2 cups of flour at this point). The dough will look dry at first, but let it continue to mix until all the flour is incorporated. Now add in 1/2 cup flour at a time, letting each addition get fully mixed in. Alternatively, if you are mixing by hand, at this point you can dump it out onto a floured counter top and begin kneading in the flour by hand. You'll want to only add in about 1/2 cup of flour at a time and knead in thoroughly before each addition of flour.

The dough will "twist" and may even climb up the dough hook, just continue on speed 2 for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, I usually set a full glass measuring cup filled with water in the microwave. Heat it up for at least 10 minutes on high. Do not open the door of the microwave. (This is where the dough will rise so you want the steam and warmth to build up).

When you see the dough "clean" and not stick to the sides of the bowl, and it is smooth, elastic and not sticky to the touch, it's ready (pic 3). Remove the bowl, slide the dough off of the hook and knead it just a few more times on the counter.

If you are mixing and kneading by hand, push the dough with the heal of your hands, moving forward and outward, fold it over and push again. Sprinkle on more flour and continue the process until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky.

Put the dough ball in the greased bowl, moving it around to coat all sides. Turn the dough over so the greased side is facing up. Cover with a clean, lightweight towel and place in the warmed microwave and shut the door. DO NOT turn on the microwave. Now, if I'm baking something else that day and my kitchen is warm enough, I'll just set the dough on top of the stove to rise. Just be sure not to set it on a "hot spot".

Let rise for about 50-60 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size. Now comes the fun part! Push your fist in the middle of the dough, letting the air out. (a.k.a punching down the dough) You don't need to "punch" it however, but just gently press out the air. From here, you can shape the dough however you choose. Traditional loaves (in bread pans), french style loaves, rolls, whatever...it's all good. I'll do french loaves here. Before you get started shaping, grease your baking sheets with shortening and dust with cornmeal if desired, set aside. (The cornmeal will help the bread from sticking.)

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough in half. Set half aside and cover with a towel so it doesn't dry out while you work on the first loaf. Pat the dough out into a rectangle. Use a rolling pin to evenly roll out the dough to the length of your baking sheet. I'm using a standard 12x16 baking sheet. While the shape doesn't have to be exact, you do want even thickness so that your loaf will bake evenly. If you see little bubbles in the dough, that's a good sign....means your dough is alive...IT'S ALIIIIVE!

Now start from the top and roll towards you. Start the rolling in the middle and make sure each side rolls evenly with it. Stretch the roll of dough out just a little bit just before each full turn, this will help make a tighter roll. A tight roll will bake more evenly and will help to avoid large air pockets or spaces in your bread. (you'll thank me later, when making that sandwich)

When you reach the end, fold up the long side onto and across the top and pinch as you go along, beginning in the middle and working your way out to each end, creating a seam. Now pinch the ends straight across.

Now fold each end up and pinch again. Then bring in the corners together and pinch one more time. OUCH!

Is all this pinching really necessary, you ask? The answer is yes, it will prevent the bread from splitting, coming "undone" or unrolling and "bursting" out from the bottom. (you'll know what that means when it happens LOL) It will also help ensure that you have smoothly rounded, evenly shaped ends.

Now place the loaves seam side down on the baking sheet. Cover with the towel. Again, set it in a warm cozy place. What's cozier than next to a big pot of simmering vegetable soup? hmmmm? The loaves need to rise a second time, about 40-50 minutes, or until doubled in size. About 1/2 hour into the rising time, go ahead and preheat your oven to 425 F, you'll want it nice and hot when the loaves are ready to go in.

Once they have risen and are doubled in size, score the tops with a very sharp knife, serrated knife, or razor blade. This scoring of the top will help the loaves to maintain their shape when the bread rises even further in the hot oven. Use a gentle light tough when scoring and brushing, you don't want them to fall. (Alternatively, you can go ahead and score them before they start to rise) Next,  brush lightly with melted butter or, for a deeper color, brush with one egg white that has been beaten with 1 Tbsp of water. This will also make for a crispier crust.

If you are doing traditional style loaves, use the same method as above only make the rectangles smaller and shorter (and thicker) to accommodate the size of the pans. You want them just slightly smaller in fact, so that they have room in the pan for the second rise. Pinch the seams the same, place into the loaf pans, and cover with a towel to rise.

Place the loaves on the middle-to-lower shelf of the oven. (the loaf tops should be right at the middle of the oven) Do not open the oven door until the loaves are almost done. You want the oven to maintain the hot temperature in order for the bread to rise and brown properly. Bake until a medium or dark golden brown and when you tap the loaf, it sounds hollow. If you're not sure and want a more accurate method for determining if they're done, you can use an instant read thermometer. Just stick it into an end or bottom of the loaf and it should read 190-200F.

For traditional loaves (in pans), this could take up to 40-45 min. For long french loaves, like I did here, maybe 20-25 minutes. Smaller dinner rolls, will of course, take even less time, maybe 10-15 minutes. Just keep in mind that every oven is different and so times will vary. Also avoid opening the door of the oven until maybe the last 5 minutes or so. Every time you open that door, you loose about 10-15 degrees of heat....and bread needs a HOT oven in order to be truly successful.

When the bread is done, remove from the oven and brush with melted butter (or melted shortening) if a soft crust is desired. (no need to do this step if you've brushed it with egg white to get a crispy crust) Allow to cool, then move to a cooling rack and cool completely (yeah, right) before slicing with a serrated knife. It is important however to cut with a serrated knife. Use a gentle sawing motion so that the bread keeps it's shape and you don't squish it. Save the "squishing" for when you're eating your own slice of heaven ;)

So there ya go, soft, light, fluffy, tender crusted, angelic white bread. Mmm mmm mmm. I know it seems like a lot of steps, but really, it isn't that difficult once you get the hang of it. I will be adding more variations for this recipe along with other recipes for all types of other breads soon, so please check back!


Danielle said...

I have some butter and honey ready!! where's my loaf?? I'll have to try this some time. I just get worried cuz my kitchen tends to be on the cool side and the counters, being granite, are always cool to the touch and my dough never rises when it's suppose to. I seriously need to try that microwave trick. :)

Donna-FFW said...

I would love some of that goodness right now toasted and slathered with a bit of butter..

Heidi said...

I am drooling!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mom...You made my mouth water!

Bob said...

Oh man, that looks so good! I love homemade bread. I've been meaning to make some for weeks now but haven't been able to get around to it. Maybe tomorrow since I have the day off...

Michele said...

That looks so good! Pass me a slice!!!

Spryte said...

I would LOVE a slice of that right now!!!

smilinggreenmom said...

Oh I would love to make homemade bread loaves! It looks very time consuming - yikes! But I am sure it is totally worth it :) I love baking with Kamut Khorasan Wheat and I just bet it would be awesome in this recipe - may have to try LOL!