Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Loafing around

Yep. I've finally done it!  Look at those beautiful loaves! They're perfect!

For the last two months, I've been baking a couple loaves of bread a week. I've done french loaves, hearty white loaves, rye no-knead breads, and dabbled with different proportions of wheat flour. I've done free form as well as loaf pan breads (free form are my favorite - they're just so pretty). I've learned so much, but true skill comes only with practice. From the very first loaf, I haven't had any trouble getting the dough to double on the first rise, but have consistently had trouble getting that oven spring in the final rise.  As a result, every loaf I've made has been sinfully delicious, but incredibly dense. Great for toast, but it would be too heavy for a sandwich (lucky for me I'm a toast kinda girl).  But finally, after hours of reading, researching, and video clip watching, I'm starting to get it! Perfect spring. Look at that! 

The one pictured above is really nothing more than a generic white loaf (bread and all purpose flours, salt, yeast, water, and sugar with an egg wash), but it made a really nice soft bread, it was light (good for sandwiches), it was easy to slice, it's pretty, and I'm unbelievably proud of it. Can you tell?

The trick then, is in replicating the success with different recipes. That first loaf is gorgeous, but I really prefer the taste of a white bread that has a little umph - you know, some of that good stuff - whole milk, sugar and butter. So I made two more loaves over the weekend, incorporating the extra ingredients. In this second round of loaves, I had just a tad too little flour so they were a little flat, but I managed to get that oven spring again (sorry I don't have a photo of that one). And I just love how much flavor this variation of white bread adds. 

The third set of loaves (pictured here), I made to experiment with my new mixer. I really do enjoy the kneading process so I wasn't sure about letting the mixer do it for me, but the upgraded mixer we bought also came with an upgraded bread kneading attachment. Intriguing.  I ended up using the recipe in the users guide that came with the mixer.  The only real ingredient difference is that it had a little less milk and more butter than the last recipe.  I think I ended up with too much flour in the dough, but now that I've seen the mixer work once, I know what to watch for as I'm adding the flour to the bowl (I've gotten used to the "feel" of the dough when I know there's the right proportion of liquids and flour. It's totally different when you can't touch it). I also used bread pans this time because the recipe called for it, but I'll do free form next time. 

So, kneading by hand vs. the mixer.  I've been told that there's just no comparison with a hand kneaded loaf, and maybe I just suck at kneading, but I couldn't tell a difference in taste at all. And when it comes down to it, I am totally loving the lack of mess. I just prepped everything in a bowl as I would have normally, but then the mixer took over. Again, I actually enjoy the kneading process, but seriously, all I had to clean was the bowl and attachment. Normally, I have flour everywhere (that includes all over me). Not that I won't ever knead by hand, but this mixer deal is pretty cool! (What did I expect? I mean it's a super cool, ultra-mega mixer. Of course it makes an awesome loaf of bread!)

So those are the breads for the last week or so. I'm getting much better at this, though I still have a ways to go. I think my next move with be another white loaf in the mixer, but with less flour now that I know what to look for. And I'll do free form for that fancy artesian look. Bread-making is just another one of those things, like the preserves and the yogurt, that I thought would be impossible for me to do. It's just too complicated, right? But like everything else, it has turned out to be easy, incredibly frugal, loads of fun, and it tastes so much better than anything you'll find in the grocery.  There's no going back now. My taste buds would never forgive me!

PS. In case anyone is interested, the first lessons I took were at The Fresh Loaf. I am constantly going back to read and re-read their site, which is incredibly helpful. Most of the experiments I've done have been variations on their three lesson recipes. I've also done tons of searches online to learn techniques and troubleshoot. There are quite a few helpful video clips out there.


Green Bean said...

Okay, you inspire me on this one. My kids are gluten free so I haven't delved into breadmaking as much as I otherwise might. I've left it to the breadmaker. I think I'll have to try my hand and some good old fashioned, free form artisian bread. Thanks for the link.

CindyW said...

Heather, you must have incredible self control to not eat the bread right out of the oven. I used to eat a fresh loaf in one sitting. Now I can't get away with that any more; still, I simply can't help myself when it comes to freshly baked bread. I will do just about any homemade food, but bread, until I grow some serious self-control :(

Heather said...

cindyw - At first, it was tough not to eat the bread while it was warm. I do steal a nibble every once in awhile, but usually, I try to wait to cut into it until the next meal (that way I have a plate full of other things staring at me). If I've cut it without anything else in sight to eat, all bets are off.

green bean - That has to be tough with gluten free kids. I had to try a strict gluten free diet for a month to eliminate celiacs as the cause of my abdominal/tummy pain and it was just miserable. I guess I would have eventually gotten used to it, but it was definitely rough eating that month. Bread-making would be rewarding even if you're the only one eating it. If you don't think you can eat it fast enough, just stick it in a ziplock and freeze in smaller portions. You can toast it right out of the freezer.

I've been amazed at the difference in home baked vs. store bread. The flavors are so much richer. Now when we go out to eat, I always pass up the free bread. It just can't compete!