The leavening: Bread, for newbies (such as myself)


I am a carboholic. Bread, booze, you name it–odds are I love it. A nutritionist would say that it has something to do with the soporific effects of the carbohydrate, that it instills in the eater a sense of well-being and calm. I’m not so sure about that; though I will say that nothing makes me sleepier and happier than a few glasses of bourbon, that is hardly the point. Dopamine rush or not, the ACTUAL point is that I am a sucker for a good starch, and nothing better typifies my adoration than a perfect loaf of bread.

I’ve been interested in making bread for many a year, but like others, I was intimidated. I mean…you have to let things FERMENT. you have to KNEAD. You have to FEED the YEAST. For that kind of trauma, I might as well have a puppy, right?

(What was that about missing the point?)

Of course, such ridiculousness was fueled by the fact that I was living in Park Slope, the kind of neighborhood where you can go to the corner bodega and pick up a loaf of fresh rosemary sourdough at 2am; my perspective changed somewhat once I moved to Bed Stuy, where the grocery stores close at 7 and the bodegas sell beer by the bottle. If I wanted rosemary bread, I was going to have to make it my OWNSELF. And so, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.


Inevitably, my journey has been marred by many a loaf of truly subpar attempts (though Bench, to his credit, will fall upon whatever disaster loaf I’ve concocted as though he’s not eaten in a week and pronounce it heavenly, thereby inspiring me to keep trying), but I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of a basic loaf. The turning point? Stumbling across this recipe. This guy? This guy knows how to write about baking a loaf of (really straightforward, non-fancy) bread. The loaves I’ve churned out according to this recipe have been highly edible. Delicious, even!

Better than tasty loaves, however, is the weird feeling of confidence I find myself with at the moment. Though I’m hardly about to go out and start my own bakery, I suddenly find myself understanding what dough is meant to feel like at different stages, what the appropriate water temperature for proofing yeast feels like, and the pure, visceral delight of ripping open a fresh loaf and smearing a slice in butter. Best of all, I’ve realized that bread is not this strange, mysterious, fussy thing: Bread is earthy; it’s forgiving; it’s adventurous; it will take a lot of abuse before it decides to stop being your friend. Measurements don’t need to be exact–bread is all about feelings. Just throw together the basic ingredients until it starts to work.

Plus, it smells freaking awesome as it bakes. Just saying.

Easy! Delicious! Basic! Bread!
as written by S. John Ross; please see his site for more detailed instructions and good common sense.

1-1/3 cups very warm water (100-110 degrees F or so)
1 rounded tbsp. sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 tbsp. butter (vary as needed; see below)
3 rounded cups all purpose flour
1 rounded cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp. active dry yeast

  1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the sugar and salt in the water; sprinkle the yeast over the top. Stir to dissolve, then let sit for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the softened butter, then about 2/3 of the flour to the bowl (1/2 c at a time), and mix until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out on to a floured board and flour your hands. Knead gently, mixing in the remaining flour slowly until the dough becomes a smooth mass (you can also do this in your mixer, with a dough hook. As I have no counter space, I prefer this method, but I know you might not).
  3. Put the dough into a mixing bowl that has been coated with oil or butter; turn once to coat and cover the bowl with cling film and a kitchen towl. Put it somewhere warm to rise for about 45 minutes (I like to preheat my oven to its lowest setting while I knead, shut it off and put the dough into the OFF oven to rise. As S. John says, the inside of the oven door should be hot to the touch, but not enough to burn).
  4. After 45 minutes, take the dough out of its warm place, and punch its daylights out! Then, give it a quick knead, adding more flour if necessary, and shape into a loaf. Place on a cookie sheet or pizza stone that’s been given a light dusting of cornmeal; put it back in its warm place for a second rising, keeping it nice and toasty under a blanket of paper towels (or, the cling film and kitchen towel from the first rising). 45 more minutes, undisturbed!
  5. Remove the towel and clingfilm! Bake at 350 (don’t bother preheating the oven if you’re in a hurry) for 30-45 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow.

The recipe is very forgiving and likes additions (like a handful of chopped herbs)–I tossed in some rosemary and thyme at the end of the first knead. Most delicious indeed.

In baking, bread

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