Yesterday I made bread again. I had made two loaves of bread on Monday, but nonetheless we were nearly out of bread. No, my husband, Clif, and I did not go on a bread binge. I gave one loaf to our daughter Shannon, and the loaf we kept was down to one or two pieces, depending on thickness. Hence the need for more bread.
Last night, as I was discussing the bread situation with Clif, I said, “What is the point of making bread if you can’t give it away?”
“Exactly,” he said, and we both reflected on how this was a good metaphor for many things, for individuals, for towns, for counties, for states, for countries. Especially in a world with finite resources and an ever-growing population. In this country, we see two responses—the clenched hand that wants to hoard and the open hand that wants to share. I am convinced that the first response will lead to misery and that the second response is the one we should be aiming for.
Making bread and giving it away. I know. I’m getting philosophical here, with a decided tilt toward Buddhism. (However, I do want to point out that most religions, at their best, encourage giving and sharing.) What can I say? Having breast cancer has made me philosophical. But even before the cancer, I have been an advocate of cooking and sharing, and often gifts to family and friends revolve around something I have baked. I have done this for birthdays, for holidays, and for no reason at all other than I want to share what I’ve cooked.
Now, I don’t want readers to think I’m in the Mother Theresa category. I’m not. I’ve had my share of selfish moments and no doubt will continue to have them from time to time. But giving away bread as well as lemon-frosted shortbread, cinnamon pie knots, and peanut butter balls is good spiritual practice. It encourages generosity, both physical and spiritual.
Adapted from a recipe from Sheila Lukins’s U.S.A. Cookbook
1 tablespoon of yeast
1 tablespoon of sugar
¼ cup of warm water
6 tablespoons of butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1½ cup of milk, warmed to room temperature
4 cups of flour, plus a little more
2 teaspoons of salt
Since I buy bulk yeast and keep it in the refrigerator, the first step is to put a tablespoon in a small bowl and let it warm on the counter for an hour or so. After that, I combine the yeast, water, and sugar in the mixing bowl that goes with my little stand mixer, whisk them, and let the mixture get nice and fizzy. This will take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
When the yeast mixture is fizzy, I melt the butter and let it cool. This only takes a few minutes. I put the milk in a glass measuring cup and microwave it for 40 seconds or so on high, until the milk registers 70ºF on a cooking thermometer. I add the cooled melted butter and the room-temperature milk to the yeast mixture and mix it thoroughly with my stand mixer with dough hooks. This could, of course, be done by hand.
Next comes the flour, the tricky part. I put the two teaspoons of salt with the flour and ever so slowly and in very small increments, I add it to the yeast/milk/butter mixture. The bowl spins, the dough hooks beat, and when everything looks smooth, I add more flour, repeating until the flour/salt is gone. This probably takes about five minutes. Then I add a bit more flour from the canister until the dough becomes soft and sticky but stiff enough to knead for a bit. This is a delicate balance, and unfortunately only with practice can a home cook really get it right. If the dough is too soft, the bread will fall. If the dough is too stiff, the bread will be coarse and dry. But the more bread you bake, the more you will get a sense of how sticky the dough should be.
Because my stand mixer is so small and because I do like to knead bread a little, I stop at about 4 ½ cups, turn the dough onto a floured counter, and knead the bread for about five minutes, adding more flour as necessary but taking care that the dough remains sticky to the touch and doesn’t get too dry. (The dough should stick to your hands but also pull easily away.) Those who are making the bread completely by hand will be kneading longer, at least 10 minutes to get a smooth, elastic dough.
Next, grease a large mixing bowl, form the dough in a ball, twist it around the bowl, and set the dough greased side up in the bowl. If the day is warm, I set the bowl on the back of the stove and cover the bowl with a dishtowel. If the day is cool, I put a 9 x 12 pan of hot water on a low shelf in the oven then put the bowl on the middle shelf. I let the dough rise until it is double, which takes anywhere from 1 to 1½ hours.
When the dough has doubled, punch it down, form into two loaves and set the dough in two greased bread pans. Again, if the day is warm, on top of the stove goes the dough. If the day is cool, I empty the 9×12, refill it with hot water, set it on the lowest shelf, and put the bread pans on the middle shelf. I cover the pans with the dishtowel and let the dough rise until the loaves have crested the pan (probably an inch or so). Like the first rising, this takes 1 to 1½ hours.
When the dough has risen, I uncover the bread pans, remove them from the oven, remove the pan of water, heat the oven to 350ºF, and return the pans to the oven to cook the bread for 25 or 30 minutes. The bread should be nicely brown and make a little thumping noise when you hit the bottom with your knuckle. Cool on a rack. But do help yourself to a slice of warm bread. And remember, share a loaf once in a while.