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Making Bread

by Catherine Fournier

We are asked to fast and abstain during Lent as penance and sacrifice. Fasting means eating one simple meal a day, and abstaining generally refers to removing meat in the meal. The visionaries of Medjugoria recommend fasting on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.

Fasting on bread and water presents a challenge to family life. Some members of the family; children, pregnant or nursing women, aged relatives, cannot and should not fast. A meal needs to be prepared for them. Family members that are fasting need nutritious and satisfying food for their single meal. Homemade bread and homemade soup satisfies these requirements. Many families have 'stretched' the definition of 'water' to include soup. Non-fasting members eat soup and bread all day, fasting members eat one meal of soup and bread.

Homemade bread is so much better than store bought bread that after a while the soft, pallid, tasteless stuff from the store isn't recognizable as deserving the label 'bread.' And it is truly easy to make, regardless of your schedule, budget or physical limitations. (While I was suffering with an (undiagnosed) form of arthritis called fibromyalgia, and was unable to climb stairs, pick up my children, or twist doorknobs, I still successfully made bread by kneading it with my elbows, believe it or not. With diagnosis, came treatment and management, and I am much improved. I went rock climbing last weekend!)

A bread-maker is unnecessary. Loaf pans are unnecessary. An oven is unnecessary for some kinds of bread. Even yeast is optional. The absolute minimum for bread making is flour, water and a heat source. Pita, bannock, and chapatis are simple kinds of bread made on a hot surface without yeast. Sourdough bread is made with a 'wild' yeast culture (yeasts captured from the air, and grown on a medium or food source) and quick breads use baking powder or baking soda as leavening. Sugar, eggs, fat, fruit, nuts, flavoring, different kinds of flours and meals, and milk are all pleasant additions to a basic bread recipe.

Simple White Bread:

This recipe will seem long, but in actual practice is extremely simple. I'm giving the instructions in some detail so that every step is clear. Once this recipe is mastered, you will be able to bake virtually any bread recipe with confidence. The ingredients given will make two loaves.

Ingredients:
  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm (baby formula warm) water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 to 6 cups flour (white will work best, whole wheat is healthier, if you want to use whole wheat flour, try a 3:1 white to whole wheat mix to begin with.)
Directions:

Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl. The temperature of the water is important. Yeast is a living plant. Too warm will kill it (that's what happens when you finally put it in the oven) and too cold will keep it from growing quickly. It's better to err on the side of too cold rather than too hot. As the yeast grows, it 'breathes' giving off gases which form bubbles in the batter - this is the rising that gives bread it's lightness and chewiness. Once you understand this, everything else in bread making makes sense.

Sprinkle the dry yeast over the water. Dry yeast is in 'suspended animation' and will keep nearly forever if kept dry. Once it touches water though, it 'wakes up' and starts growing. Sprinkling it over the water gets it started and well dissolved into the water. Leave it alone for a few minutes, until the water, when stirred, looks cloudy in a light beige shade. If you add sugar (a food source for the yeast) to this water, it will dissolve more quickly and will bubble and froth. Exciting.

When the yeast is dissolved, add the salt and two cups of flour. Beat very well. this step begins the batter. Vigorous beating, you can't beat it too long, at this stage develops the gluten in the flour and gives the bread a nice springy texture. Gluten is a protein, a long twisted string-like molecule. It dissolves out of the flour when mixed with water. Energetic beating dissolves more to the gluten into the batter, and helps all the 'strings' arrange themselves in the same direction so that they line up and work together. They form a honeycombed texture that holds the bubbles of gas given off by the yeast. A high powered electric beater does the job nicely. You have beaten enough when the dough is stretchy and goo-ey, and it falls in long thick ropes from your spoon when you lift it out of the bowl. The surface will be slightly rough and shiny. This step may take 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the rest of the flour, a little at a time, beating it in well. When the dough is too stiff to stir any more and it pulls away from the sides of the bowl, sprinkle a bit of flour on the counter and dump it out.

Now you start kneading. Kneading accomplishes two purposes. It works the last of the flour into the dough and it develops the gluten even more. As you knead the bread it will gradually transform from a lumpy sticky mass into a silky smooth tight ball. The more flour you add, the harder and crumblier your bread will be. The less flour, the softer and less easy to slice thinly the bread will be. It's a balance between the two undesirable extremes but fortunately, it's a very large in-between area.

To knead bread, the basic movement is pushing down and away, then folding back and towards. Give it a quarter turn each time. It can develop into a rocking movement, down and away, back and towards. Unless you are tall (about 5'8" and above) a counter is too high to be comfortable. Try your kitchen table. Lightly flour your surface, and begin kneading. If the bread dough sticks, sprinkle a little more flour on it. As the bread develops, it will become less sticky, so be careful not to add too much flour at the beginning, the bread may not need it. Rub your hands together over the dough occasionally if the bits stuck to your hands bother you.

When the dough is kneaded enough, the surface will form blisters, bubbles that develop under the surface and break as the dough is stretched. It will feel smooth and sort of 'bouncy' and will be about the firmness of a babies bottom. Really. If it's harder than that, more like a toddlers muscled bottom, you've added too much flour. If it feels like your belly immediately after giving birth, you haven't added enough flour.

When you think you've kneaded it enough, put it back into the mixing bowl, which should still have some flour coating the sides. Cover with a damp tea towel and put it to rise. If you put it in the fridge, it will rise very slowly and be risen enough in about 8 hours (i.e.: overnight.) If you leave it on your counter on a cool day, it will rise gently and be risen enough in about 2 to 4 hours (i.e.: long enough to go shopping, or have a nap.) If you put it in a warm place, in a gas oven with the pilot light on, on top of an electric oven turned on to 150 *, in a warming closet (British moms will know what that is) it will rise in about an hour (i.e.: long enough to clean up the kitchen and start some laundry.)

When it has risen to twice its size, give it a good punch. It will sigh gently and collapse on itself. This is all the yeast bubbles collapsing. You are doing this because, while it has risen, there are not enough little yeast plants in it yet and each bubble is too big to make nicely textured bread. You want more and smaller bubbles. The yeast needs to grow some more. By punching it and kneading it some more, you are giving the yeasts a chance to grow some more and making sure that they are evenly distributed throughout the dough.

Knead the bread dough a few times, just enough to get it smooth and even. Cut it into two even pieces and cover them again with the damp tea towel while you grease the loaf pans. If you don't have loaf pans, grease some cookie sheets, or tow frying pans or two juice cans (these are especially good for large batches - eight juice cans will fit into an oven that will take four loaf pans)

Knead and shape the loaves into smooth slightly cylindrical shapes by patting it into a rough rectangle and folding it together. Pinch the long edge together and smooth the top side. If you are using a cookie sheet or frying pan, make round loaves.

Place the loaves into the pans. Set them to rise again until doubled. They will rise quicker this time, so check them after about an hour. (More laundry and start dinner.) You don't want them to rise too much, because they will also rise in the oven at first and if they go in too big, they will rise too far, overflow the pans and generally look horrible. If your loaves over rise, punch them down and start again.

Preheat the oven to 350*F. Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes. The baking time will depend on the size e of the loaves, the consistency of the dough and the age of your oven. Check them after 25 minutes. The loaves should have nicely browned tops, and be shrunk slightly away from the sides of the pan. Tale one loaf out of the oven and slide it out of the pan. Tap its bottom. If produces a hollow 'thunk' sound, the loaves are done. It will take some practice to distinguish the dull thud of an undone loaf from the hollow thump of a done one.

Remove the bread from the oven, slid the loaves out of the pans and cool them on a wire rack. This is important, escaping steam can make the crust soggy and damp. If the crust seems to hard to you, you can brush the loaves with melted butter to soften it, or cover to cooling loaves with a tea towel. When the bread is completely cool, put it in a paper or plastic bag and store it in a bread box or in the refrigerator.

Bread doesn't slice well when it is hot, but who cares?

Basic White Bread

Ingredients:
  • I tablespoon dried yeast
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1/2 dry milk (this gives the bread a softer crumb and some more nutrition)
  • 2 tablespoons honey, brown or white sugar, corn syrup, or molasses. (this makes the bread a bit sweeter)
  • 2 tablespoons light oil, melted butter, melted shortening (this gives the bread a softer crust)
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 5 to 6 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons wheat germ
Directions:
  • Follow the directions given above, with these modifications:
  • Add the honey and dried milk to the water before the yeast.
  • Add the oil with the salt and first amount of flour.
  • Add the wheat germ with the second amount of flour.

Some Favorite Combinations:

  • Oatmeal, molasses and raisins (add raisins and other hard things just before setting the bread for its first rising. They will 'fall out' of the dough while kneading and drive you crazy otherwise.)
  • Mashed potatoes, melted butter, milk and eggs.
  • Cornmeal, melted shortening, and white sugar.
  • 4 cups grated cheese, milk, and oil.
  • Milk, melted butter, eggs, cardomon, candied peel, and raisins.
  • Whole wheat flour, honey, oil.

Soup:

In our home, we eat 'Magic Soup' once a week. It's called magic because it never runs out, and the name is more appealing to children than what it actually is. Magic soup is made by creating a good basic vegetable soup with a chicken or beef stock and vegetables. There is always some left, so it gets stored in the freezer still in the pot. All leftovers from subsequent meals get added to the pot - spaghetti sauce, stew, cooked vegetables, rice, mashed potatoes, chopped meat loaf, the stock from boiled chicken bones, curry, anything and everything except fish. Once a week, I take the pot out of the freezer, thaw and heat it, add water if it's too thick and serve. It's like a free meal every week, and leftovers are never forgotten to grow technicolored fur in the refrigerator. It's flavor is undefinable but good.

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