Learning to Bake Bread

“The first time your mother ever baked a loaf of bread,” my Dad used to tell me with fondness, “it was so hard it put a hole through the drywall in our apartment.” I’ve always had a hard time believing this story, because my mother is one of those people who ends up being very good at whatever she decides to do—from gardening to cooking to raising kids to drawing to decorating Easter eggs to being completely prepared for any eventuality that might occur on a family camping trip with three small children. So the idea that she could decide to bake a loaf of bread and have it NOT turn out perfectly stretches the imagination a bit. Still, I have to admit that when I think of my mother and baking, what I remember was an endless series of cookies, pies and desserts; cranberry bread and carrot cake and date pinwheels and banana nut bread. I don’t remember bread—as in sourdough or sandwich, although I suppose she must have made it because otherwise why would my father and I be having that conversation?

Still, it wasn’t until I was out of college and in my own apartment that I started to pay attention to bread, buying my first loaf of non-white, non-presliced, artisan-crafted sourdough from a crunchy-granola supermarket down the street called “Bread and Circus.” I had to buy a bread knife to slice it. At that point in my life, bread—and eating—was an act of resistance. I shopped at food coops for organic produce and bought herbs and spices in little plastic ziploc bags that would have surely made a cop’s eyebrows climb if he happened to peer into my back pack on grocery day. And because I was very poor, and buying organic was rather expensive, I ate a lot of bread, which at least had the virtue of being filling even if it wasn’t all that cheap.

I experimented a little bit with baking my own bread in those days, but I was too easily intimidated by the counter-cooking-culture to really feel comfortable with it. Back then, my friends were the type to build their own wood-fired stone bread ovens in their back yards, and use 100-year-old sour dough cultures they had preserved from immigrant great great grandmothers. They ordered stone ground organic flour off of cheaply printed order forms from special coop farms. They let their breads rise in hand-made bowls and baked them on special stones and tiles they found in little artisan shops in Italy and France. A loaf of their bread probably cost about twenty-five bucks when you took into account all the extra time spent procuring pure ingredients and special equipment, and I could eat for a week on $25 if I didn’t mind the taste of Ramen pride too much. Besides, I lived in a tiny apartment with an oven whose thermostat was…eccentric. It made baking difficult.

So it wasn’t until I came South, moved into a house with a little more space than your average walk-in closet, and installed an oven that meant what it said when it showed the tempurature to be 400 F, that I tried once again to learn how to bake bread. It was a different experience this time around. I was in a brand new kitchen, a brand new house in a brand new city. I didn’t know anyone, and had no one to impress but myself (and my mother, who I still called regularly once a week). I had five pounds of flour in the cupboard and nothing else to do with it but bake. I had one large glass bowl, two regular sized glass bread loaf pans, and one fairly sturdy wooden spoon. I had a baker’s dozen books on the art of baking bread “from scratch.” I had no job and a lot of time.

As it turned out, all my bread baking books, while fascinating to read, were rather more complicated than I was willing to attempt as a nascent bread baker, so after a bit of searching I found what looked like a simple recipe in the back of one of my cookbooks that was actually devoted to soups and stews. “Good soup deserves good bread.” said author Bernard Clayton, who then proceeds to give a simple recipe for “A Peasant Loaf” using only flour, water, yeast and salt. It turned out so well, I have been using the same recipe ever since.

Bernard Clayton\'s Complete Book of Soups and StewsOh, I’ve wandered. I’ve tried more elaborate doughs, added other ingredients, used other kinds of flour and other types of starters. I have gone through whole grain phases and challah phases and flatbread phases. I even once had the freezer full of naan—a kind of Indian bread made with yogurt that is cooked in a frying pan stuck in an oven. That was educational, but ultimately wasteful since even I couldn’t eat that much naan. But on the whole, Clayton’s original peasant loaf has proved so reliable that I come back to it again and again, the rhythm of it so ingrained in my hands that I haven’t needed to look at the recipe for years. In fact, when a friend asked me for my bread recipe, I had to actually think my way through the steps to give it to her—like the way you can only tell someone the lyrics of a song if you sing it to yourself in your head.

Baking bread became a kind of ritual for me. I often give the loaves away (one person can only eat so much bread) but I used the process as a way to relax. Some people do yoga, I knead dough. The smell of loaves baking in the oven is more therapeutic than aromatherapy. And far more satisfying. It took a few months before I learned—by feel—when the dough had been kneaded to that perfect, silky elasticity, and when I had over done it. It took awhile before I had figured out when the water was too hot or too cold for the yeast. And there was one fateful and sad day when I forgot I had left the dough rising, and it did far more than double in size—spilling over the lip of the bowl and dripping down over the edges of the counter tops.

Now, I use the recipe below—tweaked slightly to accommodate the use of some sourdough starter my mother gave me–and bake bread about once every other week—unless it has been a very stressful week, in which case I might go through a good five pounds of flour baking bread for the neighborhood.
As decompression techniques go kneading bread dough is pretty harmless. I could be out drinking.

A Peasant Loaf
Inspired by The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton (Fireside Books, 1984)


2 packages dry yeast
1 cup sourdough starter
2 cups of water (70 F)
6 cups of bread flour, approximately
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons water
Butter or shortening

1. Sprinkle the yeast over the 2 cups of water in a mixing bowl. Let stand for a moment or two, then stir to dissolve the yeast particles.
2. Add starter, stir until mixed, then add 3 cups of flour and stir into a thick batter. This is the point where you can add seasonings as well—rosemary, or cracked peppercorns, or caraway seeds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 4 to 6 hours, until size doubles.
3. Mix the salt with two teaspoons of water and pour into the batter. Add flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring first with a wooden spatula or spoon and then working by hand as it gets less sticky. When the dough is shaggy but a solid ball, turn out onto a work table. Begi kneading aggresively—psuh down with the fingers of both hands, turn the dough a quarter turn and fold over—continue this rhythm. Sprinkle on more flour as neeeded to give the dough additional body—it should not slump when formed into a ball. Occasionally slam the dough down hard against the work surface to speed the formation of the gluten. Dough should be elastic, firm but not hard.
4. Lightly film a bowl with butter or shortening and place the lump of dough in it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for about 1.5 hours—until it more than doubles in volume.
5. Punch down the puffy dough and put it on a lightly floured work surface. Shape into one large loaf or divide the ball into as many pieces as you want loaves or rolls.. For round loaves (boules) shape the pieces into blls and place them on a greased baking sheet (you can sprinkly a little cornmeal on the sheet if you like). For baguettes, roll the dough under your palms to extend out 16 to 20 inches and place on a baking sheet.
6. Cover the loaves with wax paper and leave at room teperature until they have risen to more than double in volume.
7. Place 1 cup of hot water in a shallow pan in the bottom of the oven to provide steam during the first few minutes of baking. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
8. With a razor blade or VERY sharp knife, make diagonal cuts across the loaves. Place the loaves on the middle shelf of the over. Bake for 25-35 minutes. Loaves are done when they are a golden brown in color and hard on the bottom, and sound hollow when thumped.
9. Place on a rack to cool.

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