My bread machine conked out a while ago. I’ll probably get another eventually, for the convenience of it, but in the meantime I’ve found I really enjoy making the time to make bread. Now don’t run away from me yet. Even extremely busy people can make bread from scratch if they think ahead. Here’s how:
To begin, I’m starting with a Hodgson Mill Nine Grain Bread Mix. Pretty much everything I need to get started is included, which saves me time. I try to keep a few boxes on hand, because just seeing the box in the cupboard reminds me to bake, and makes it easy to get started—no gathering of ingredients. As long as I have some warm water and a little butter or oil, I can skip right to the mixing. This bread is great for sandwiches or for dipping in olive oil; it’s hearty, and it tastes rustic and homemade without needing to buy and mix a bunch of whole grain flours together. I’m a fan.
Bread making has a rhythm and a built-in schedule of its own. You mix, and you knead: the floury dough mixture slowly becomes pliable and silky as you work with it. Yeast comes alive and does its thing on its own schedule. Sure, you can make life hospitable for this mysterious little ally by setting the stage (with warmth & humidity) to speed it up; or slowing it down a bit (with the cold) if you need to stall for time. But at the end of the day, yeast really only does one thing; and it does it pretty much at its own speed. You’ve got to learn to hum along to its tune.
The tune of bread baking can vary a bit, but it doesn’t waver much. For yeast breads it usually goes, Mix and knead, First rise, Punch down and shape, Second rise, Bake. (Even Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day, if you’ve played around with that method, only stretches the process out a bit. And it may be a slight oversimplification, but I sort of view sourdough loaves as starting with a prolonged first rise.) Here’s what it looks like once you’ve added the water/yeast mixture to the dry flour mix—it’s a little rough, but all combined. Ready for kneading.
I remember that I was definitely a little overwhelmed the first time I read a bread recipe. (How many hours from start to finish?) Now that I’ve gotten the knack of it, the time commitment doesn’t seem like that much. Really, if I can just plan ahead, the hands-on time is less than 30 minutes. The rising time in between kneading is mine to do with as I please—as long as I set a timer. For example, I use the rise times to watch a movie, or run out to the store (during the first rise) . . . do online Christmas shopping . . . or something more useful, like start the rest of dinner, or laundry (that’s only on extra-special domestic days.) I’m making it sound a lot duller than it is. How does this sound: start your great American novel in 90 minute increments. Spruce up your lepidoptery collection. Learn a new blues riff. (I’m adding those to my to-do list right now.)
Here’s the dough just after it’s been kneaded, and it’s ready for its first rise. See how much smoother it is, how well it’s sticking together in a ball? That’s because after a few minutes of kneading, the gluten in the dough is elastic enough to hold its shape.
At this point, the dough is now ready to go into a warm place so the yeast can do its thing. (Don’t forget to cover with a damp cloth, because if the skin of the dough dries out, it will keep it from rising, and the finished product will have crackly hard bits.) My warm place is the oven– I heat it to 200˚ F for a few minutes, turn it off, and let the dough rise there. No drafts.
I could mention the old theme that when you know your time is limited, you make more use of it; and the theory that creativity flourishes with limitations . . . are there others? Any which way you cut it, I find it thoroughly satisfying to dig my hands into dough and knead it—it takes me back to my ceramics classes—and satisfying again when I fill the time I have mindfully and (hopefully) productively. And I’m just as satisfied, in a purely tasty way, to cut into a fresh loaf at the end of the tune.
Here, the dough has just been punched down after the first rise, to remove the bigger air bubbles. It’s ready to shape into a loaf shape for its shorter second rise and baking.
I hope you have a chance to take some time and enjoy the process of making bread. There’s so much to enjoy; the smell of the yeast, the feel of the dough, the warmth of the oven, and, of course, the taste of your finished product. Here we go: a loaf of bread, and a whole lot more done (my list included laundry, guitar practice, and dinner prep) by the end of the day.
Note: The recipe is on the back of the box, but here it is with a few notes, so you can see it in detail, and maybe think about what you might get done while you have bread baking going on in the background.
Hodgson Mill Nine Grain Bread Mix
- 1 package Hodgson Mill Nine Grain Bread mix (entire bag of Dry Bread Mix)
- 2 Tablespoons butter, margarine (cut in pieces) or vegetable or olive oil, plus a little more for coating a mixing bowl)
- 1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon Water (warm)
- Hodgson Mill Active Dry Yeast Packet (included in Nine Grain Bread Mix)
- Flour for kneading surface (optional)
Pour contents of package into a medium bowl. Using a fork, cut in pieces of butter/margarine or vegetable oil until it looks like coarse crumbs. In a large bowl, mix dry yeast and 1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon warm water. Let stand 5 minutes. (It will get bubbly and smell beery and sour). Gradually stir enough bread mix into water/yeast mixture to form a soft dough. Reserve a few Tablespoons of dry mixture to lightly flour a dry surface. Turn dough onto this floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Coat the inside of a large mixing bowl (I often use the same one, less cleaning) with vegetable shortening or oil. Place dough in bowl. Cover with a damp cloth. Let rise until doubled in size (1 – 1 ½ hours). Dough is ready when it springs back to fill an indent after you poke it gently with a fingertip. Punch down (press to get rid of the big air bubbles) using extra flour as needed and turn onto lightly floured surface. Form dough into a loaf shape (long oval) and place in a greased 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ inch bread pan. Do not cover. Allow to rise in a warm place until dough rises just above edge of pan (30 minutes – 1 hour).
Bake in a pre-heated 350˚ F oven until lightly browned (30-35 minutes).