I used to be a little afraid of bread. Not afraid of eating it, to be sure, but of making it. Bread making is an art, an elevated form of baking that for for some is closer to a religion. One of my recent favorite books was, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” by Samuel Fromartz, an account of his epic quest to find the secrets to creating the perfect loaf of bread. Yes, yeast geeks, let’s hold hands and sing a chorus of Kumbaya, shall we?
I was exhausted (and intimidated) after reading this paen to bread, but also intrigued. And, with the zeal of someone who has just been indoctrinated into a cult, I was more than willing to bumble (that’s hybridese for bungle and stumble in case you thought I was unintentionally illiterate) my way through some bread recipes. I mean, if the loaves I made came out too terrible, I just didn’t have to show and tell, did I?
Well, during my period of experimentedness (experimentation + dementedness. Stick with me here, people.), we had our breadmaking section in culinary school. I don’t know what it was about trying things at school – the camaraderie (we were all in it together), the professional kitchen (with professional dishwashers to immediately whisk away all evidence of failure), or the calm demeanor of my instructor, but I was able to turn out a very crackly, dome shaped loaf of honey walnut bread without having a nervous breakdown. Uh huh.
No longer a bread novice, I went back to our apartment-size kitchen and started making bread solo. Flour, yeast, water, salt, sugar. Stir, knead, rise, punch, rise, bake. And like that, I was a breadmaker.
Home again in Texas, back in my own kitchen with its Texas-size island and oven, it has been easy to add breadmaking into my weekly routine. It feels almost meditative. You can’t rush it. The yeast has to proof; you have to knead and punch down the dough; you have to leave it be. Leave it be. And believe me when I say there is very little in life that a hunk of toasted French bread with a bit of butter and apricot jam slathered on it won’t cure. Bread, is in fact, the staff of life.
So, yesterday, after returning from dropping Grant off at Columbia for law school, I wandered into my kitchen feeling bereft. And empty. I know, he’d been in London for a year, so I should be used to him far, far away. But that seemed so temporary and this seems so…grown-up. My baby is off on his own.
Time to make bread.
And so I did. Two loafs of crusty French bread, a third of one I polished off hot out of the oven, plain. Carb infusion therapy. I saved the rest of the loaf to eat with our dinner of Chicken Madeira and then wrapped up the second loaf and put it in the freezer. I wanted to keep an emergency loaf on hand. Spencer leaves for Cambridge in a few weeks.
2 cups warm water (110 degrees)
1 Tablespoon yeast
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 Tablespoon salt
5 – 5 1/2 cups bread flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to sit for 10 minutes until frothy (proof).
Add 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil and salt and mix. Add 3 cups flour and beat for 2 minutes until well combined.
Add 2 more cups flour and mix until a firm dough forms. I use a wooden spoon, but you can use a mixer if you have a bread paddle.
Pour dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is firm and elastic. Best method is to fold a corner of the dough towards you, push down with your fist and then turn a quarter and repeat. Knead dough for about 10 minutes. Shape into a ball.
Pour 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil into bowl and roll the ball of dough in it to cover all sides. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise until it has doubled.
Remove dough from bowl. Punch down and divide in half. Form two long slender loafs and lay on a greased cookie sheet. Cut slits in the top for steam (scissors work best for this).
Allow to double in size again.
Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Spray with water halfway through if you want a crispier crust.