Making Bread the Old-Fashioned Way: Getting Back to Basics
Simple Homemade White Bread
It’s been a long time since I’ve baked bread using no implements but my hands, a wooden spoon, and an oven. That's because marvelous inventions over the last few decades mechanized home bread baking. Appliances such as the KitchenAid mixer with its dough hook, and other countless versions of bread baking machines, took the muscle out of baking bread, and I believe, much of the joy.
After having used these inventions for many years, I am now afraid I may have lost the ability to make an exquisite loaf of bread the old-fashioned way. I tried to assure myself that I couldn't possibly have forgotten how—like riding a bike.
This is an adapted recipe, but you can find the full version in The All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook.
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 package yeast
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- Add 1 package yeast to 1/2 cup of 110°F water and let stand 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve.
- In a large bowl, mix 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 cup boiling water, and 1 cup milk. When butter is melted and liquid is lukewarm, add the dissolved yeast and stir.
- Add 3 cups of all-purpose flour. Beat vigorously. Add 3 more cups of flour and mix well. Ff the dough still sticks to the bowl, add a little more flour.
- Turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes, working in more flour, if needed, so that the dough doesn't stick to your hands.
- Place kneaded dough into a greased bowl. Cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm place for an hour or more. When about double in bulk, punch down, divide into two balls, knead again, and shape into loaves.
- Place loaves in greased metal bread pans and cover. Let rise again for about an hour.
- Bake in a pre-heated, 400°F oven for 40 minutes.
Finding a Warm Place for the Rising
Finding a place for the bread to rise can be a challenge. My house is cold in the winter, even with the heat turned up, because it is built on a concrete slab. The chill from the ground permeates even the sofa and the bed. Years ago, in my bread-baking prime, I had a gas stove with a pilot light. The pilot light provided the perfect warmth for the bread to rise in the oven, no matter the season. Here and now, my stove is electric, and its oven is as cold as the walls that seemingly protect it from the icy winter air. I have to be innovative.
I boil water on the stove and pour it into shallow pans that I place in the oven on a low rack. Then I place the kneaded dough in its bowl onto an upper rack. Hopefully, the water pans will let the dough reach about 80°F, the ideal temperature for yeast to work. Now, it’s warmer in the oven than it is in the house, and for that, I am grateful.
The first rising goes well. The dough has doubled in bulk, and I can smell the working yeast. I punch the dough down, and my hands tell me the dough has risen perfectly. I pull the dough apart into two balls, knead each ball, shape it, and place it in a greased pan. I refill the oven water pans with warm water, place the bread pans in the oven, and the second rising begins.
An hour later, the bread is baking in the oven. It is looking fabulous. It reminds me of those long-ago days of making rye, pumpernickel, whole wheat, challah, and monkey bread. I feel balanced. I say to myself, I wish I had my Schwinn. I would be too big for it now, of course, but wouldn’t it be grand?
It is seriously smelling like fresh bread in here. The baking has 20 minutes to go. I turn on the oven light, and I see two magnificent loaves of bread reaching their perfection. In 20 minutes more, I will tap their tops to see if they are done. When you tap the top of a loaf of well-done bread, you get a hollow but rich and strong sound. Others have described it better than I. For now, you just have to take my word for it and also try it for yourself.
Did I Forget How to Use My Hands?
I succumbed to modernization a number of years ago when my daughter was young, and I began to bake bread for a small home business. My father-in-law bought me the most magnificent time saver in the world: the KitchenAid mixer. There wasn't (and still isn't) anything that machine can't do. It kneads bread, grinds meats, slices and dices vegetables, makes ice cream and pasta, and more. I used it then to mix and knead big batches of white bread, rye bread, whole wheat bread, cinnamon raisin bread, challah, pumpernickel, monkey bread, sour dough, and, well, I forget the others. It was a long time ago.
Later in my life, after my daughter was on her own, I started traveling for my job. Being away from home for three to five days a week, I seldom used the KitchenAid for an inspired cooking session of any kind. Then, bread was in my house only by the graces of the bakery. But my mother missed my homemade breads, and gifted me with a newfangled bread baking machine, which I loved. But, unlike the KitchenAid, the bread baking machine malfunctioned after a few years, and I was back to the bakery.
Even though I found a number of store-bought breads I liked, I eventually tired of them. I now longed for the old-fashioned breads I used to make by hand. I missed the smell of yeast as it awakens and the fragrance of a fresh loaf pulled from the oven. I missed the rhythmic motion of kneading, letting my mind go free as my hands sank into, pushed, and turned the warm raw dough. Odd as it may seem, I even missed cleaning up the mess that homemade bread baking always leaves behind.
A few days ago, I decided it was time to get back to basics. I bought yeast and eggs. I had butter, flour, salt, and sugar on hand, and there was no store-bought bread in the house to fall back on. I was ready!
Conquering the Fear of Hands-On
But, I wasn't quite ready. Fear washed over me as I doubted my ability to pull this off. It had been such a long time. What if I kill the yeast with water that's too hot? What if I've forgotten the feel of dough when it is at just the right consistency for shaping and baking? What if, in this cold and dank season, I can’t find a warm place for the yeast to work? What if my timing's wrong? What if, what if, what if?
I faced my fear with the idea that baking the perfect loaf of bread is like riding a bicycle. You never forget the feel of the balance. My Raleigh ten-speed is in my garage, not ridden for 12 years. I know that if I take it out of there and get on (given that the wheels, gears, and chains are in good condition), I will sail. So, I ventured out to bake my bread, just as I had ventured out to ride my black and chrome Schwinn Streamliner as a child when my Uncle Al ran beside me to help me balance on my own. I trusted him and learned to ride. I remember how good he was to me, and his memory will be warm in my heart in the act of baking this bread. Now, I feel as though I am holding his hand, trusting myself to resurrect the feel and the balance of creating a loaf of bread with my own hands.
What I haven't told you yet is that I am writing these words as this celebratory batch of bread is in the making. If you bake bread by hand, then you know it's a five or more hour process with lots of wait time in between. I am taking the wait time to write my thoughts. You will be with me as the bread succeeds or fails.
The bread is perfect. I turn the loaves out of their pans. I take one loaf and sliced off a hot heel. I buttered it, jammed it into my mouth, and took the dog for a walk in the ice. When we came back indoors, the aroma of freshly baked bread nearly made me cry for joy. I gave the dog a piece with butter and gave myself another piece with butter and homemade wineberry preserves. We are happy.
Indeed, baking this bread was like getting back on the bicycle. Nothing was forgotten and nothing was lost. When it’s in your heart, soul, and memory, it can’t be lost.
I have yet to get back on that Raleigh. But maybe I’ll put it up for sale on eBay instead. Afterall, one good outcome does not mean another is blowing in the same breeze. I wanted to bake bread, but I don’t really want to get back on my bike, even though I know I can. I just needed the memory of my Uncle Al and the Schwinn to get me past my fears.
Remembering Learning How To Make Bread
My family taught me well about cooking and food. However, none of my family taught me how to bake bread. I learned how to bake bread from a special friend, Cheryl, and Fannie Farmer.
Cheryl’s secret of success was wine, and plenty of it, consumed with gusto during the five hours it takes to make two loaves. I swear, she was the best bread baking teacher. She told me the wine made her hands stronger, and therefore the bread lighter.
As for Fannie, well, she’s just plain brilliant. You can’t go wrong when you follow her recipes and baking methods. All of the bread recipes I developed in my early years have their roots in Cheryl’s light, assured, and bubbly style and in Fannie’s basic white bread recipe.
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© 2009 Sherri