At the center of our family’s food culture there was always bread. My Mother and her Mother baked bread for everyone. Mom’s recipe started with 25lbs of Robin Hood Flour. No, I’m not kidding. 25 pounds. I don’t think you can even find flour this size any longer in grocery stores. But, it was always available to her and it was the bases for her recipe. 25 lbs of flour, 3 dozen eggs, 3lbs of shortening, a half gallon of milk…. seriously.
She used a cauldron-sized enameled pot to mix and knead it all in and then the five of us would deliver loaves to her family and friends and neighbors. It would not be unusual for her to turn out 40 loaves of bread during her baking sessions.
She called her bread Pane di Pasqua (Easter Bread), and she always had it on that important holiday, but made it also at various occasions throughout the year. At Easter time there was the added treatment of putting an egg in what we called ‘doll baby bread’ which each of us found in our baskets with filled chocolate eggs and bunnies. I borrowed the pic below to give an idea of what they looked like. Next Easter I’ll make some and post pics of the process!
Easter Bread – made for all family gatherings and occasions at Mom’s house is an Italian version of Challah — rich in eggs and fat and scrumptious. I save that bread for VERY special occasions.
I bake bread at least twice a week, sometimes more, depending on how the Spirit moves me. To me, there’s something almost mystical about baking bread — the way it converts from a jumbled mass to a smooth, shiny, elastic ball, and then grows to amazing heights. I love how it smells as it bakes, how it feels as I take it out of the pans and finally how it makes me feel to see my family and friends smile as they break it and eat it. It’s probably my favorite ‘cooking thing’ to do: Bake bread for people I love.
If you are a beginner to bread baking – don’t fret over it. Science and Nature will do all the work. It’s really hard to mess it up if you just learn a couple basic things about Yeast, Flour and Water — the bread baking trinity.
Yeast: I use SAF instant (a Red Star Brand) baker’s yeast (from King Arthur flour (http://www.kingarthurflour.com). It can be instant, active dry, or fresh cake but make sure it’s fresh. I like the instant, because I can just add it to my dry ingredients and I don’t have to activate it first.
Flour: Always use a good quality flour. Flour isn’t very expensive (about $4.00 for 5lbs of King Arthur) I use King Arthur exclusively. It’s a few pennies more than most other brands but I think the quality is unmatched. You may use all-purpose or bread flour with very little difference in the result. Bread flour has a slightly higher protein content and so it produces a more forgiving loaf in usually a little less time, but I get the exact results I’m looking for using All-Purpose (AP) flour most of the time. King Arthur’s AP flour has a higher protein content then most of the other store brands, so I’d say stick with this, unless a recipe expressly calls for “bread flour.” Buy and use only what you can in a couple months. Although most white flour will hold well for 6 months, the fresher the better (www.eatbydate.com has a good chart for how long things last).
Water: When possible use spring water. Many districts throughout the country have switched from chlorine to chloramine and chloramine kills yeast rapidly. I keep gallon jugs of spring water I buy when there’s a great sale going on – that I use for making coffee and bread. You will see a big difference in the height and texture of your breads if you switch to spring water. The water you add to your flour should be warm. not hot, but warm. Bread will rise even in cool water, albeit a longer rise time, but it will not rise if you kill the yeast with water that’s too hot or too chemically treated.
Besides the feeling you get by mixing, kneading, baking, smelling and eating your own amazing loaves, bread baking is pretty cheap. While you can pay $3.00 to $5.00 or more for a crusty loaf of artisan bread from your local bakery or WholeFoods, you can make it for much less.
You can get 7 big loaves of my Ciabatta bread out of a $4.00 5lb bag of flour. Add .20 cents for water and about .25 for yeast and a couple pennies for salt and you have less than a dollar in a loaf using the very best ingredients. If you use 3 loaves/week like we do (150 loaves/year) that’s a savings of over $450.
Once you get in the habit of baking a loaf at a time, you’ll see how simple it is. You can let it rise refrigerated overnight and spend very little time preparing it for dinner tonight. We usually eat around 8pm so for me it’s easy to mix, rise, shape, rise and bake in about 2-2.5 hours, after work, while i’m making the rest of our dinner.
Typically, I’ll get home from work, throw my flour, yeast, water and a little salt in my mixer bowl and let it mix while i change clothes. Then I do a little manual kneading to make sure it feels as I want it to feel (more about this later on), and put it in a bowl to rise. While that’s happening I usually run to the store for tonight’s protein and whatever I need and when I get home to start that, my bread is ready for shaping and proofing.
Our favorite is a basic ciabatta bread and I’ve included my recipe here: