The smell of bread, fresh from the oven is quite something. To me, it’s the smell of comfort.
Both my mom and her sister discovered the joys of baking their own bread in the early 70s. My mom embraced bread making because, as a physician, she was increasingly concerned about the health impacts of consuming “industrial food” and wanted to decrease our family’s reliance on it. My aunt started making her own because she and her family moved to a farm in a remote part of northern Virginia and, in her words, “it was easier to make bread from scratch than to drive the 25 minutes to the supermarket [and back].”
Mom toggled back and forth between a busy medical practice and being a hands-on parent to three, so she didn’t exactly have a whole lot of room to spare in her schedule. Yet, she always found the time to bake bread on Sundays. She used to say there was something therapeutic, meditative even, about the process of rhythmically working the bread. To her, it was the perfect Sunday afternoon chore.
As a mom myself now, I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy grabbing the pre-fab bread off the supermarket shelf once a week. But I’ve told myself for the past four years that I didn’t have the time to make it from scratch. Plus, given my propensity to mess things up in the kitchen, I was also nervous I’d waste a lot of time and energy, not to mention ingredients, making something that turned out to be a bust.
But then I took a moment to really study the ingredients of what I was buying. The list included, among other things: “preservatives (calcium propionate, sodium propionate), datem, mono- and di-glycerides, fumaric acid, lactic acid…etc.” Recognizing not one of these as items in my pantry, I decided it was high time for me to learn how to carry on the tradition my mom started.
So, this past week, I asked my Aunt Rie Adele for a little bread-baking tutorial while we were all on vacation together at my step-father’s cabin in upstate, New York.
She, her granddaughter, Cati-Adele and I whipped up enough basic whole-wheat dough for about three loaves in less than 20 minutes.
Then we went and did other things, like swim in the lake, play cards, and build a tree fort, as we waited for the bread to rise and re-rise.
At the end of the afternoon, three golden-brown loaves were greeted by shouts of glee from a pack of hungry boys and girls as they emerged steaming from the oven.
It tasted as good as I remembered.
Ingredients & Tools
5 Cups lukewarm water
4 Tablespoons of sugar or honey
2 Tablespoons of salt
2 Tablespoons (or packets) of yeast
5-8 Cups of whole-wheat flour
3 Cups of white all-purpose flour
1 large mixing bowl
1 large wooden spoon or spatula
Add 5 cups of whole-wheat flour and 3 cups of all-purpose flour into the liquid mixture. Stir together with a wooden spoon until it becomes a single, large ball of dough. Wipe excess dough off the spoon and retire it.
The dough should still be fairly tacky. Sprinkle a fistful of whole-wheat flour on top of the dough. Knead it slowly with the heels and palms of your hands. You can knead the dough in the bowl if it is large enough, or on a smooth surface that has been covered with flour. Both my mom and my aunt always kneaded the bread in the bowls as it makes for an easier clean up.
Add more fistfuls of flour gradually until the dough is no longer sticky. A good rule of thumb: when you poke the dough and your fingers remain clean, the dough has enough flour.
Knead for at least 10-15 minutes. According to my aunt, the longer you knead, the better the bread. Well-kneaded dough looks smooth, is firm, and not at all tacky.
Put the kneaded dough back in the large bowl if you have taken it out. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise for 1 hour.
After one hour, punch the top of the dough in so it collapses. Knead it into a ball again and then cover it with the damp cloth and let it rise for another 45 minutes.
Again, punch the top of the dough in so that it collapses. Break it into three or four equal parts (depending on the size of your bread pans, this recipe makes either three or four loaves. I have some particularly large bread pans, so I am making three loaves).
Put a third (or fourth) of the dough in each of your bread pans. Press the dough down so that it fits the bottom of the pan. Turn under the edges.
Set the pans aside and let the dough rise again for 45 minutes.
Put the pans with the risen dough directly in the oven and bake at 375-385 for 30-35 minutes.
(p.s. I’ve made this bread on my own twice now. Halving the recipe works well if you have fewer mouths to feed.)
Have you ever had homemade bread? Are you intimidated by the though of it? Do you think it’s too much for an already a busy mom to consider adding to her list — not important enough?