Making bread is such a basic, yet artistic task. It is an ancient tradition that has stayed with us even in this modern world. Though we can easily buy bread, there is something about making it with one’s own hands that is soothing and gratifying. For me, it is also a good way to get creative ideas flowing. Bread-making is such a rich field for symbolic interpretation, the way the temperature cannot be too hot or it will kill the rising powers of the yeast, yet it needs to be warm enough to allow the dough to rise, the fact that we get to create the shape the dough becomes. I also love the fluidity and flexibility in making bread. I never do it exactly the same way twice, and there is no exact amount of flour to use. The bread-making conditions change depending on the room temperature, humidity, and lots of other things. So much of it depends on how the dough feels, and really I think bread gets better and better with practice, as is the case with almost everything. I recently wrote an essay about the beauty of bread-making, and it has been published in the current October/November issue of one of my favorite magazines, MaryJanesFarm. If you have never read this magazine, you should check it out at the newsstand or at www.maryjanesfarm.org. This magazine is full of information about natural living, healthy eating, gardening and farming, with beautiful photographs and great recipes and ideas. In my bread-making essay, I write about the therapeutic effects of kneading the messy, sticky batter into a soft, smooth, elastic ball of sweet-smelling dough, and how as I knead, I can work through whatever is on my mind. And the beauty of it is that the more one kneads the bread dough, the better the bread is. So if I am working the dough extra much to figure out a problem, the bread turns out that much more tender. And the heavenly scent of bread baking in the oven! That alone is worth all the labor of making bread by hand. These days, I don’t have the time to make bread as often as I used to, and I know many of us are usually too crunched for time to make our own bread. But when there is an open morning or an open afternoon, I savor the chance to work with the dough and create something so necessary, yet so luxurious. Below is the recipe I use most often for bread. It is very basic, holds up well for making sandwiches and toast, and tastes especially delicious right out of the oven with butter melting on a freshly-sliced piece. This recipe comes from “The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book”, though this trustworthy book is definitely not “new” anymore–my mother gave it to me in the early 1990s! However, I find myself going back to this recipe time and time again because it works well for me, and my family loves it.
Homemade Wheat Bread
- 3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 3 Tablespoons butter
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 3/4 cup water
Combine 2 cups of the all-purpose flour and the yeast in a large bowl. In a medium saucepan, heat and stir the brown sugar, butter, 1 and 3/4 cup water, and 1 teaspoon salt until warm (about 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit) and the butter is mostly melted. If the brown sugar/butter mixture is quite hot, let it cool. I usually wait until I can (carefully!) dip my finger in the mixture to know if it is cool enough. If the mixture feels comfortably warm, then it is cool enough. You don’t want to pour a hot mixture into the flour/yeast mixture, because that could kill the yeast’s rising powers. When the brown sugar/butter mixture is slightly warm but not hot, pour into the flour/yeast mixture. With a large wooden spoon, stir vigorously for a two to three minutes, until the mixture is completely smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl regularly. Then stir in the whole wheat flour and as much of the remaining all-purpose flour you can.
When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, scraping the sides of the bowl to get everything out. Now comes the fun part. Knead in enough of all-purpose flour to make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. There is no exact amount of flour to use–it really depends on so many different variables–so just gradually knead in flour and watch the texture of the dough change. Make sure you knead energetically, folding the dough over and pushing down with the heel of your hand, and then using your fingers as the dough gets softer. Knead a minimum of 8 minutes, but you can knead longer if that is what it takes to get the dough to the texture you want. It should be soft and moist, but not sticky, with the flour worked in evenly. Shape the dough into a ball. Place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once. Cover with a dish towel, and let rise in a warm (not hot–around 80 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal) place until double the size (about 1 to 1 1/2 hours).
When the dough has about doubled in size, punch it down and turn out again onto a lightly floured surface. Divide in half. Cover and let the dough rest for ten minutes. Meanwhile, lightly grease two 8x4x2 inch loaf pans. Then shape each half of dough into the shape of a loaf. Place in loaf pans. Cover with the dish towel and let the loaves rise in a warm place until they are the size you want them when you bake them (they should about double in size–it takes about 45 to 60 minutes).
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Bake the bread in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when you tap it. Cover loosely with foil the last 10 to 20 minutes of baking time. Remove the bread from the pans and let cool. Enjoy!