Column - A way to beat winter blahsEvery winter, for years, I have vowed to spend those shut-in, cabin-fever days in mastering the art of bread baking.
By: Dennis Dalman, Alexandria Echo Press
Every winter, for years, I have vowed to spend those shut-in, cabin-fever days in mastering the art of bread baking.
This winter, about a month ago, I finally started baking bread. Well, I should say, tried to bake bread. That old notion of “mastery” collapsed like fallen dough. Now, humbled, my new goal is simply to become competent in baking some basic kinds of bread.
In the past month, I’ve attempted five or six bread recipes, some of them three or four times. I must have baked more than two dozen loaves, not counting various buns. All were disappointing. Feeling defeated, I called relatives to pick their brains, including Aunt Jeanette of Benson who has been baking for a half century.
Lo and behold, thanks to their “tutorials,” I baked a molasses-wheat loaf that turned out very well. So good, in fact, I couldn’t believe I’d finally made a loaf of bread worthy of its name.
Later, on the Internet, I kept coming across sourdough-bread recipes. I decided to try to make my own sourdough starter mix. I followed directions and in a week my starter was ready to use. Yesterday, warily, I made the bread, shaping it into French-bread loaves. When it was baking, I never smelled anything so good in my life. The results? Magnifique!
I’m happy to report my adventures in bread baking are, despite the failures, gratifying and a lot of fun. It’s a pleasant, relaxing hobby. On a snowy day, the aromas of yeast, of bread rising and of bread baking can send a person to seventh heaven.
I challenge my readers to try bread baking. Why not try a loaf or two of sourdough bread? If I can make it, anybody can. Here’s how it’s done:
Get a clean quart-size glass jar. Put inside it a cup of all-purpose flour and a cup of very warm water. Stir well with a wooden spoon (experts claim it must be a wooden spoon). Sourdough “purists” never add yeast to their starter. Not being a purist, I did. I added a teaspoon of dry yeast to give it a boost. Cover the top with plastic wrap, secured with a rubber band, and then slice a few holes in the wrap. Let it sit on top of the fridge for a week. Every 24 hours or so, discard about half of the starter, then add one-half cup flour, one-half cup water and stir well again with a wooden spoon. The starter will get bubbly, foamy and start smelling yeasty-beery. A grayish-icky-looking liquid will form on top of the starter. It’s called the “hooch” and is harmless. You can stir it back in or pour it out.
After a week, it’s time to make the “sponge.” Pour a cup of the starter into a large glass mixing bowl. Then add a cup of very warm water and a cup of flour. Stir well with a wooden spoon. Let it sit in a warm place, covered with a kitchen towel, for anywhere from three to eight hours. It will get very foamy, increasing its volume.
Measure two cups of that “sponge” into another big mixing bowl. (If there is left-over sponge, after using two cups of it, pour it back into the starter jar.) Then add to the sponge liquid 2 tsp. salt, 4 tsp. sugar, 2 tsp. olive oil (or softened margarine) and up to 2 cups bread flour (one-half cup at a time). When mixture forms a ball, place it on a floured counter and knead it for 10 minutes. To knead, push the heels of both hands into the dough ball and push down and forward, constantly turning the dough 35 degrees around before each push. Keep adding dustings of flour as needed. Dough should feel smooth and elastic after kneading.
Rub a coating of olive oil inside of large bowl and on surface of ball of dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place (70 to 80 degrees) until it’s double in volume. Punch dough down and knead again for just a couple minutes on floured surface.
Form into two long tube-like loaves. Place them on a baking sheet. Cover with a kitchen towel and let them rise until nearly double in bulk.
Turn oven to 350 degrees (don’t preheat the oven in this case). Then right away pop the bread in and bake 30-45 minutes. Cool on wire racks.
It takes sourdough bread much longer to rise than breads made with commercial yeast. But that’s what helps give the bread its wonderful flavor – that slow rising with the slightly sour-tasting starter.
Some great bread bakers have kept the same batch of sourdough starter – constantly fed – for decades, if not longer.
To keep your starter, put the jar in the fridge with the lid on it (a tiny hole punched in the top of the lid). Every week, pour out and throw away about 3/4th cup or so of the mixture and add another half-cup of flour, half cup of warm water. That’s called “feeding” the starter. Stir, cover and refrigerate again. Keep a little calendar on the fridge to remind you to “feed” the starter every week or so.
Trust me, good readers, bread baking is a good way to beat back the winter doldrums.