I’ve Got the Need to Knead
Is there anything better than hot fresh baked bread right out of the bread machine or bread cloche slathered in butter? For my money, I’d say no, nothing compares to buttery soft bread still steaming when it’s cut open.
Baking your own bread has many advantages; taste, cost, and best of all kneading all your daily frustrations out on a lump of dough. Basic white bread is simple to make, does most of the work for you, and rewards you with something so delicious you’ll wonder why you haven’t been making it all along.
The recipe I use, which will follow, is as simple as you can get. My husband’s grandmother gave me a box full of old cookbooks and, being a cooking fanatic, I started to flip through them all until I found a bread recipe that I thought might be a)easy b)tasty. The recipe that follows is both, lucky for you, I’ll share it so you don’t have to make loaf after loaf of bread that doesn’t rise, rises too much, burns on the top, or doesn’t cook properly.
The most important thing you need is a thermometer to measure the temperature of the water to dissolve your yeast in and to measure the temperature of your milk. Dissolve one packet of yeast in a quarter of a cup (1/4c) of water that is between 100 and 110 degrees. Stir the yeast in well to dissolve it, then add one teaspoon of sugar (I use organic cane sugar, but table sugar works just as well) and stir well. Leave your thermometer in the yeast/sugar/water mix to ensure it stays at the proper temperature to “proof” the yeast. I often find that my water cools down, so I put my measuring cup into a bowl of hot tap water to keep the temp up. After about 15 minutes, your yeast should be pale yellow/brown and have tripled in size. There should be a quarter of a cup of murky water and three-quarters of a cup of foamy yeast bubbles on top of it. That’s how you know your yeast is active and ready to be put in your dough.
In the meantime, while waiting for your yeast to proof, heat two cups of milk (I use 2% but any milk would work, except, perhaps skim) for about a minute in the microwave. It should be at about 100 degrees, but no more than 110 degrees. In a large bowl, put one teaspoon of sugar and two teaspoons of salt in. Add two tablespoons of cooking oil (or melted butter, it’s really your preference)to the salt and oil. Add the milk to the bowl and combine well. By this point, your yeast should be ready to add to the mix.
Add yeast/water mix to the bowl and stir gently to break up the bubbles in the yeast. Now it’s time to add your flour. You can use any brand of flour you’d like, any type of flour (except cake flour) I use unbleached flour because I like as few chemicals as possible in my food, but it’s your choice. Add two cups of flour and stir with a stiff wooden spoon. Add three more cups of flour, one at a time until your mixture is a fairly sticky ball. At that point, put a cup of flour on your kneading surface and plop the ball of dough down. Work the dough until all the flour is worked in OR until you need to add more flour. Sometimes I use five cups of flour in a batch of bread, sometimes it’s seven; it depends on the way your bread is working up. You should knead and stretch and roll your bread for about fifteen minutes. Your bread should feel velvety and look smooth. Press a finger into it and see if your dough “bounces” back. If it does, you are ready for the next step, if not keep kneading for a few more minutes.
Take a clean bowl and spray it with cooking spray. Put your dough ball into it and cover it with a damp towel (or plastic wrap, though I find the damp towel method works MUCH better than plastic wrap) Put in a warm place and leave it be for about 40 minutes. I have an old gas stove that has the pilot lights up under the surface of my stove, so I have an automatic warm spot that isn’t TOO warm to leave my dough to rise. You might also, if you aren’t as lucky as me, heat your oven to about 250 degrees and shut it off to put the dough inside. The dough is ready when you push two fingers in and it leaves a dent.
After your dough has risen, put it on your kneading surface again, give it a quick knead, and then cut it in half. Form each half into a loaf shape and put into a greased loaf pan. Cover your bread with a damp towel (or plastic wrap) It should rise to about the top of the pan in about 25 minutes. When that happens, put the bread in a preheated to 350-degree oven. Bake for about 35 minutes until the top is golden brown and has a hollow sound when you “thump” the top. Take the bread out and lay on its side, in the pan, for about ten minutes. If you can resist cutting into your bread after the first ten minutes cool-down period, good on you, if not, be careful, it’s gonna be hot still! Turn bread on its side to slice and use a good sharp bread knife to do the cutting.
If you have more willpower than any member of my family does, give it another 25-35 minutes to rest, then slice it open and enjoy. I wrap my bread in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge. I am not really sure how long it keeps, two loaves of bread rarely last two days in our house, but I would bet it’s fine for a week or so refrigerated and stays a month or two in the freezer. Enjoy!