Sunday, August 16, 2009

BLT from scratch: Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven

I enjoy cooking, but I really love to bake. Cookies, quick breads, cakes, muffins -- I got hooked on making those things while still in elementary school. I always wanted to learn to bake bread, but the thought of working with yeast intimidated me. For years I dreamed of baking my own bread from scratch but never had the guts to try it. I dreaded ending up with some kind of bread disaster on my hands. Then, a number of years ago, I was talking to a co-worker about my bread-baking fears. Judy was about fifteen years older than me and lived in a 200-year-old farmhouse on the edge of town. ("Town" was West Lafayette, Indiana.) She was a potter and a weaver. She kept and sheared her own flock of sheep so she would have a constant supply of wool. She raised turkeys for food. She had a pet mule. And she was an avid baker, so when I told her I was nervous about working with yeast, she looked at me like I was crazy. She assured me that making yeast-risen breads is really no big deal -- as long as you have lively yeast and follow the recipe directions, you'll end up with great bread. Then she gave me some of the best advice I've ever received: "What's the worst that could happen? Your bread won't rise and you'll end up with a bunch of dough. So what?"

Sure enough, my first loaf of bread came out just fine. I used a recipe called The Learning Loaf from The Wooden Spoon Bread Book by Marilyn M. Moore, which holds the baker's hand through every teensy step of the bread-making process and produces one perfect loaf of white bread. It sounds ridiculous now, but having an experienced baker scoff at my fears and force me to contemplate, "What's the worst that could happen?" changed my outlook on life. It gave me the courage to try anything in the kitchen (and just about anything outside of it). And you know what? So far, nothing really terrible has happened, either in the kitchen or out, and my bread almost always comes out perfectly. Thanks, Judy!

I decided to make White Mountain Bread from The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger, a cookbook I highly recommend. (I particularly like her recipes for Fresh Apple Coffee Cake, Stollen with Dried Cherries and Pineapple, and pizza dough.) Hensperger claims that White Mountain Bread makes great sandwich bread, though my experience with every bread I've ever baked is that, no, it's not great sandwich bread -- homemade bread, while certainly some of the best-tasting food on the planet, is simply too dry and crumby to make excellent sandwich bread. But I decided to take her at her word and proceed. Above, the yeast proofing with a little sugar and warm water. See how it's starting to get foamy? My active dry yeast was lively.

Whole milk, good quality butter, sea salt, and honey are about to get scalded on the stove. The honey was a Christmas gift from my friend Sherri -- her next door neighbor keeps bees and she bought a bunch of his honey to give to friends this past holiday season. It's a very light yet flavorful honey. Nice to be able to add another home-produced element to my sandwich!

I like to knead dough by hand, but I usually mix the yeast, milk and flour in my KitchenAid. It's much easier than mixing by hand and gives the dough a good start on developing its gluten (the stuff that makes the dough rise and become elastic).

I have just turned the dough out onto my floured bread board and am now ready to knead by hand. The dough was pretty springy already from the mixer so I only had to knead it for 2 or 3 minutes. Then I put it in a buttered bowl, covered it, and left it to rise on top of the dryer for about an hour. Sorry there are no action shots -- kneading takes two hands, and I was the camera operator as well.

Here's the dough after it had risen for about an hour. The way to tell if it's ready is if it has doubled in bulk since you put it in the bowl, and if, when you poke it with a finger, the hole doesn't fill in immediately but keeps its shape. Check on both counts. I turned it out onto the board again, divided it in two, shaped it into two rolls, and placed the rolls in buttered baking pans. I let them rise again for 45 minutes.

Ready for the oven. I slashed the tops with a very sharp knife, then placed them in the preheated oven and baked them for another 45 minutes. After they had been baking for about 15 minutes, the most heavenly aroma filled the kitchen. Baking bread is one of the best smells in the universe.

Here they are. Freshly baked bread should pop right out of the pan and be evenly browned all over. You tap on the bottom of the loaf and hope to hear a hollow sound -- if you do, it's done.

Mmmmm, bread porn.

Here's Sean enjoying a slice with butter. I burned my fingers cutting the bread because I only let it cool for about 4 minutes before I attacked it with a knife.

See? Kinda dense and dry. Don't get me wrong: this is a good recipe, and I baked it correctly, but it's just not ideal sandwich bread. (It is, however, ideal for toasting.) Still, I'll probably bake a fresh batch of it when I'm ready for my BLT, as I don't know of a better recipe.

Next: the lettuce.


kb said...

Your bread looks delicious. Growing up, I have very fond memories of both my Grandma and my Mom baking homemade bread. They did it like it was no big deal, kind of like just brushing their teeth. I was always amazed at how good it tasted. My Mom still bakes it and Mike, the kids and I will devour an entire loaf right out of the oven...burnt fingers and all! Yum! My Mom's new thing is baking homemade hamburger buns. She now has us all so spoiled that we refuse to buy buns at the store anymore.

shandon said...

When I was a teenager, my dad started baking bread; that bread, combined with my mom's homemade strawberry jam, was heaven on earth.

I'd love to try making hamburger buns and dinner rolls. Really, is there such a thing as bad bread?

~ Lucy said...

That bread, some butter and your plum jam... OMG! My head might explode just thinking of it.