The Bread Life
"Give us our daily bread."
"Bread is the staff of life."
"Man shall not eat by bread alone."
"I know on which side my bread is buttered."
We've all heard the above quotes throughout our lifetimes, and they are a just a sliver of what's been said about bread for centuries.
As a kid, I grew up on bagged white bread, or as Julia Child wrote in 1974, "the cellophaned Kleenex sold at the supermarket."
I was a stranger to the stuff of a "homemade loaf, crusty, crumbly and a succor for the eater." So were my schoolmates. Bread was from a bag at the store. I remember my brothers taking those bendable, Gumby-like slices out of the bag and rolling them into balls -- and then pelleting them at their sister. Ouch.
Like many of my generation, I tasted homemade bread for the first time in Europe. Still, to me, it continued to be something you bought outside of the home. It was not something you'd make yourself.
In the mid-1990s, before I decided on cooking school, I had a boyfriend who loved to make bread. I remember taking the Metro up Connecticut Avenue to a cookware store where he bought a loaf pan. In spite of attempts to become a better cook, I remember thinking how bread making was beyond my skills. I was afraid and still thought it otherwordly. So I stayed away and let him knead in solitude. (I'll get back to that a bit later.)
Yet my lurking fascination with bread continued. In early 1995, Firehook Bakery, the Alexandria, Va.-based company known for its artisan breads, was opening a store in Dupont Circle, and I applied for a job to work behind the counter. In the next year-plus, I ate homemade loaves nearly every day. I got to appreciate crumb and texture, crust and bite, and shared my spawning enthusiasm with the customers. Still, I was a bread-making virgin.
Cooking school changed all that, and I remember that day in bread class, listening to the instructor on activating yeast until foamy and knead your dough until it's soft like a baby's bottom. I was terrified. I could blacken fish and reduce a sauce, but this bread baking stuff required feeling and involvement. Yikes.
Let's just say that I was off to a lousy start. I knew it, my instructor told me as much, and I ignored this culinary part of me for as long as possible. Even while studying in Italy, I avoided the bread-phobic side of me and screwed up every batch of dough I touched.
I don't know exactly when things turned around, but once I let go of my fear of failure, my bread started to resemble something other than cement. It had flavor, it could be sliced.
With that first edible loaf, I stopped being an outsider. I was now participating in breadmaking, and that, I realized, was the missing link. Bread starts out as dough, a mixture of yeast, water, flour, salt, at its most basic level. It is a living organism, and it needs you, the baker, to be its steward, its guide, to transform into a loaf.
In the five years that yoga has been a part of my life, I have noticed a difference in my bread baking. As a full participant in the process of kneading, rising and shaping dough, I have experienced breadmaking as meditation. Just as I tune out the world and day's events when I step onto my yoga mat, so too I go inward when making bread. It happened yesterday afternoon, around dusk, and it was just me and my dough, ignoring the sirens, the headlines, e-mail.
Now I have two loaves. I will slice one for sandwiches and for breakast toast, and I will give away the other loaf so someone else can experience the gift of homemade bread.
Peter Reinhart, author of several bread books and bread apostle, wrote: "This is bread, the consolidation of all that is harvestable and all that is good about life on this earth. "
Several years on this bread quest, I now understand what he means.
Buttermilk Honey Bread
From "The Bread Bible" by Beth Hensperger
¾ cup warm water (105-115 degrees)
1 tablespoon (or 1 envelope) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cups buttermilk, warmed just to take off the chill (alternatively, brought up to room temperature)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon salt
6-6 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used a combination of high-gluten bread flour and AP flour)
Rich egg glaze: 1 egg, beaten, with 1 tablespoon milk or cream
Pour warm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Stir to combine and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. You may cover with a dish towel.
In a large bowl (or in the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment), add buttermilk, butter, honey and yeast mixture, and stir to combine. Add salt and 2 cups flour. Beat hard to combine. Add remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, beating with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until a shaggy dough is formed.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead about 5 minutes, until dough is smooth and satiny, dusting with flour only 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to prevent sticking.
(If kneading by machine, switch from paddle to dough hook and knead for 3-4 minutes, or until dough is smooth and springy.)
Place dough in a greased bowl. Turn dough once to grease the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until double in bulk, 60-75 minutes.
Gently deflate dough with your fist. Turn dough out on a lightly floured work surface. Grease two 9-by-5 -inch loaf pans or a baking sheet for freestyle round loaves. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise until fully doubled in bulk, 30-45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush top of loaves with egg glaze. Put pans on the center rack of the oven and bake about 45 minutes, or until loaves are brown, pull away from sides and sound hollow when tapped with your finger.
Remove loaves immediately to a cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing.
Makes 2 9x5 pan loaves or 2 freestyle round loaves.
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