There is nothing better (or simpler) than making your own bread. It isn’t quick, but it is perfect for a cold fall day as you work around the house. One of my favorite olfactory sensations is working outside in the crisp air and then coming in to the smell of baking bread. The recipe below smells great even before it starts baking, so you get double value.
It isn’t labor intensive, and the bread does most of the work itself, needing only periodic assistance, a reasonably cozy spot to sit, and a little massage.
The trick with bread is the yeast, which does not keep indefinitely. Yeast bread recipes require “proofing,” which ensures the yeast is up to the job of rising the bread. To proof, mix yeast with warm water (between 95 and 115 degrees, above that and it could kill the yeast); this feels warm and comfortable but not hot. If it feels hot to you, it probably will to the yeast, too.
Next, feed the yeast (1 tsp of honey in the below recipe) and let it sit for 6 to 10 minutes. The first half of the time the yeast is dissolving, the second half it is proving itself by expanding and bubbling. If it doesn’t, start again with different yeast.
Most bread recipes provide a range for flour amounts. Start with the least amount and work up to the largest. Temperature, humidity, flour type, and quality can all affect how flour reacts. You are looking for dough you can handle without it sticking to everything (you, the counter, your shirt…). When the dough stops sticking, you have added enough flour.
Below is a recipe for a wonderful oatmeal bread adapted from the “King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook” (a treasure of a baking book). I always double the recipe and still can’t keep the bread around longer than a couple of days.
Sharon Allen manages the North Branch Cafe, and is the former co-owner of Uncommon Market. She also is a former operations manager at The Bridge.
1.5 cups boiling water
1 cup rolled oats
½ cup honey
1/4 cup (½ stick or 4 Tbsp) butter
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp or 1 packet active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
1 teaspoon honey
2 cups all-purpose white flour (I prefer unbleached, bleached seems a little scary)
3.5 to 4.5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (same kind as above)
Pour the boiling water over the oats and stir in honey, butter, and salt (use a large mixing bowl, this will be your bread mixing bowl as well). Breathing that in will give you a sense of how wonderful your kitchen is going to smell while the bread is baking. Let mixture cool to room temperature.
In a separate small bowl proof the yeast; add warm water and honey to yeast and let sit for about 10 minutes (it should be frothy looking). Once it is bubbling, add to the cooled oat mixture and stir in. Add the first two cups of flour and stir well. Add the next 3.5 cups flour and stir until mixed and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl. Sprinkle some of the remaining cup of flour on a flat smooth surface and turn dough onto it. Knead for a few minutes (adding flour as needed) until it becomes one ball (fold over and press down on itself several times) Once it has formed a ball, let it rest while you wash your hands and the bread bowl. Dry the bowl and coat with vegetable oil. Knead the bread a bit more until it’s springy (one cookbook defined the bread at this stage as “smooth as a baby’s bottom”). Place the ball of dough in the bowl, cover with a clean cloth and find a warm place to set it. (I put mine over the pilot light on the stovetop; keep it out of drafts). The bread will take about an hour and a half to double in size (this is where you get the last of the woodpile stacked or the garden tucked in), you should be able to poke it and not have it spring back.
Once it has risen, punch all the air out and cut it in half. Shape into two loaves. Pretty much any size loaf pans will work, but they should be greased with either shortening or vegetable oil. Cover and let sit for about another 45 minutes or until they have gained a bread-like shape. Place in a cold oven, turn to 400 degrees for 15 minutes and then turn down to 350 for another 25 minutes. Bread should be nicely browned when done. Let the bread cool for a few minutes in the pan and then place on a rack. In theory you are supposed to let it cool for at least a half hour, but no one I know has ever been able to wait. It does cut much better if you give it at least 15 minutes!