It’s funny what some flour, water, salt and yeast can turn into.
I was always wary of bread baking. Back when my mother still baked challah without a bread machine, it seemed an over-involved and labor intensive process. She only would do it in the fall and winter and one batch lasted a few weeks (the scale of her grandmother’s recipe was… impressive). Then we got a bread machine, the batches got smaller, the labor was greatly reduced and bread making was something a 10 year old could do. Still, the process was mysterious. Some weeks the dough would be smooth and elastic, some weeks it was sticky and difficult to handle. Sometimes, no matter what you did, the challah would turn out horribly dense; other times it was light and fluffy.*
So when I was in my own kitchens, bread was not high on the agenda. I got my stand mixer when Himself and I got married, and wonderful desserts started coming out of it. My food processor was used to make everything from potato kugel to pesto. Bread, however, eluded me. I dabbled a bit in starter based bread, using a levain made from champagne yeast provided by T.K.. I managed a series of really bizarre flat loaves that never really achieved the proper consistency and then let the starter die in the back of the fridge. My friends baked bread, I lived in New York City where I could get artisan everything** – what did I need to bake my own bread for?
When good friends moved to Vancouver, I inherited a canister of yeast from their freezer. It sat in my freezer until another friend asked me to bring the bread product to Friday night dinner. Normally I’d ask Himself to pick up some bread from the Bucharian restaurant that delivers to his office, but something in me said “wouldn’t home baked challah be nice?” I’d also just picked up an inexpensive baking stone at Bed, Bath and Beyond that could stay pareve (my other stone has cheese burned into it from tasty pizzas). So I looked up a good recipe, resolved to get up early enough on Friday morning to get the dough together before going out for my usual Friday routine and hoped for the best.
With the aid of my stand mixer and dough hook, the challah dough came together quite quickly. I deposited the dough into the fridge for its first rise and headed out. When I got home, it was definitely doubled in size and looked just like risen dough in cookbook pictures. I kneaded it, put it back in the bowl and let it rise again. Once again, I had textbook dough, which I shaped into some pretty braided loaves and set to proof. To get to the end of what is becoming a long saga, when the challah was cut into that night the texture was perfect, it tasted lovely and the loaves were perfectly browned. “This wasn’t so hard,” I thought to myself. “I can do this.”
Last night, I opened up Michael Ruhlman’s “Bread Baking Basics” app on my iPad and threw together the dough for a white boule. As Himself and I were watching TV, I periodically got up and kneaded or shaped as needed, preheating the oven and then finally slipping the loaf onto the stone and slashing the top open. When I took it out, the loaf made these gorgeous crackling noises as it cooled.
This morning, I sliced off a piece and toasted it. I have gotten spoiled by the tang of sourdough, but otherwise it was delicious. Also, I’m tackling that problem head on with the jar of flour and water cultivating yeast on my counter.
Something tells me we’ll be going through a lot more flour around here. I’m not sure anyone will mind.
*Later I would begin to understand just what difference humidity makes, as well as the ability of high gluten flour to suck up moisture. But that’s neither here nor there.
**Including kosher bread. It’s nice living here.