Each of my brothers and sisters had a special talent or two (actually more, but…). When Leah canned fruits and vegetables, her jars never broke and every one sealed. Samuel is mechanical and good with his hands. Levi plays the guitar. Hannah makes jewelry.
Now I’m not quite as gifted as they are (I don’t think), but I do have a gift for making bread. When everyone else’s loaves were small and hard, mine were tall and light (umm, usually). I have no idea why. In the same way that Leah could turn out dozens of perfect jars of tomatoes or Samuel could put a enigne together, I had the touch for making good bread. For awhile, before I married, I made most of the bread for the family, six loaves on Saturday. It’s something I continue to enjoy. I hope that if you don’t make bread, you’ll be inspired to try it too. It’s such fun!
Bread making tips
Making bread is really quite simple. The only essential ingredients are wheat, water, and leavening. Something sweet to grow the yeast is good, and oil keeps it from being so dry. Salt gives flavor.
The process is more important than the ingredients. I measure my water, but beyond that I don’t measure anything when I make bread, especially flour. My first attempts at bread baking with measured flour were pretty bad. I forced the dough to take as much flour as the recipe called for, and it was too stiff, which resulted in dense, flat bread. You want to make sure your water is sufficiently warm to activate the yeast but not so hot that it kills it. And you want to make sure that you’ve added the amount of flour that makes your dough stiff enough to handle, but still soft and almost sticky. Don’t let it over-rise or it will be crumbly with a strong yeasty taste.
I used to make it all by hand in huge batches, but these days I’m busier and use a bread machine—but only to mix the dough. I also use my kitchen aid mixer.
I stick to a basic recipe and simply vary it as I choose. The possibilities are endless. Most often I just make a loaf , or a batch of crescent rolls. I make the rolls by rolling the dough into an oblong shape, cutting into triangles, and rolling the shapes up from the large end. Once in awhile I make cloverleaf rolls or a French loaf.
Sometimes I make raisin bread, sausage bread, or jalapeño bread. Again, I roll the dough out and spread it with my fillings of choice (cinnamon raisins and nuts, sausage or peppers and cheese, or whatever). Roll up from the short end and put in the greased pan. I usually slash the tops of these so that the filling is visible as the bread rises. It looks nice and it also doesn’t get mixed up with regular bread.
Sometimes I add things to the basic dough. My favorite is to mash up a leftover baked sweet potato and include it with the water. I have to add a little more flour to make up for the extra moisture, but it makes the bread fluffy and moist, and it doesn’t dry out like regular bread. You could also use any kind of cooked winter squash such as pumpkin (probably about half a cup for the following recipe), or you could use mashed potatoes. I’ve also added nuts or sesame or sunflower seeds for a bread with more texture. Several times I’ve included a small amount of rolled oats to the warm water, and then brushed the tops of the loaves with egg white beaten with water and sprinkled the top with oats. That makes a very pretty loaf.
I’ve been making bread since I was about 12, so that’s been 16 years. (Wow…) Practice makes perfect, and it’s something that brings me a lot of joy. My kids prefer my rolls to any store bought bread, and it’s so much better for them.
Following is my basic recipe. This will make a 2 lb. loaf in a bread machine, a large loaf in a pan, a long French loaf, or 12-18 rolls.
1 ¾ c. warm water (almost hot to the touch)
1 T. honey
1 T. olive oil
1 T. dry yeast (I buy mine in bulk from Sam’s)
Around 4 2/3 c. whole wheat flour (to start with, sometimes more—enough to make a soft dough. I use Prairie Gold/white wheat flour for a lighter whole wheat bread.)
Mix salt, honey and oil into the water till salt and honey are dissolved. Sprinkle with yeast and mix. Let stand for 5 minutes. At the end of 5 minutes the mixture should look different--it should be pale and sort of fluffy as the yeast begins to work. You might even see little bubble explosions on the surface.
Add flour to make a soft dough. Knead by hand or in a bread machine or mixer with dough hook for 15 minutes. If you’re kneading by hand, sprinkle flour on the counter as needed to keep it from sticking too badly. Don’t add too much flour though.
Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a cloth. Put in a warm place (like by the stove with a pot of beans cooking, my favorite) for about an hour. Dough should double in size. Punch down with your fist. Form into whatever shapes you want. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes (big loaves) or 20-25 minutes (rolls). Remove from pans right away. Enjoy the fruit of your labor! Wouldn’t this be yummy for Thanksgiving!