Baking Bread

I am a lover of bread—of good bread, I should clarify, although I haven’t really met a bread I didn’t like. Despite the fact that I know I’d be better off with a double serving of veggies instead, I like nothing more than a big crusty baguette to accompany my meals.

Yet me? Making it? Yikes.

There’s something intimidating about baking bread. I think nothing of trying ridiculously complicated recipes, which I only succeed at making well a small portion of the time. Yet the thought of baking bread—real bread, because I know my banana bread doesn’t count—gets my heart racing.

I know I’m not alone. There’s just something about bread that seems so ... I don’t know ... special. And complicated. And time-consuming. As if only a certain few can actually make it from scratch, and the rest of us are destined to buy it from store shelves or bakeries or artisans at farmer’s markets forever. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Admittedly, there’s the bread machine, which takes the guesswork and hard work out of the process. Dump the ingredients in, shut the lid, press a few buttons, and come back a few hours later. My Mom had a bread machine when I was younger and it was wonderful—fresh bread, pizza dough, you name it. But it’s just not the same as getting dirty, of doing it yourself, of taking full responsibility should it fail.

So this weekend I finally worked up the nerve to try bread-baking myself.

Before I even began, I had visions of pulling a crusty French loaf from the oven, of serving it to friends and family with flourish. But I knew better. I had to slow down and take this one step at a time. So I decided to start with what looked like a particularly easy, tasty recipe, which I found—where else?—at Smitten Kitchen. (You must click that link to actually get the recipe. I can't bother myself to type it here, as I need to focus on rambling instead. You understand?)

It's called light wheat bread. I thought it was a good pick for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: 1. It looked pretty easy, which is very important for a bread-making scaredy cat; 2. It looked absolutely divine (but what doesn't on Smitten Kitchen?); 3. It's light wheat bread, which means I'll-use-you-for-sandwich bread, rather than I'll-stand-at-the-counter-and-eat-the-whole-loaf bread (also very important).

Ready? Deep breath. Here we go.

[Insert sound of screeching brakes here.]

Great. I didn't even make it out of the driveway, figuratively speaking of course, and I already have a problem. I need a four-quart bowl. I don't own a four-quart bowl. None of my bowls are even close to four quarts. Apparently, they're all sissies.

Time to improvise. Which is why you see me making bread here in a giant pot (which, I am reminded, belongs to Conservative Mom and I should probably return—sorry!).

In go all the dry ingredients. (Even the yeast, no fancy work required.) So far so good.

Then, once I've mixed in the shortening and water and mixed some more until the dough forms a ball (almost), I toss it on the floured counter.

Now comes the fun part. Knead, knead, knead. (Sorry, kneading = no photo taking. Use your imagination here.)

The process of kneading is pretty terrific, I have to say. I knead for a good 10 minutes. But time flies, in part because I am singing along to Fleetwood Mac (what? don't look at me like that ... I love Fleetwood Mac). There's something so soothing, music or not, about the feeling of the warm dough in your hands, of the back and forth motion of kneading. I don't even mind when it takes a bit more than 10 minutes before the bread really feels ready. (Admittedly, Butter minds. He decides halfway into kneading that it's time for a potty break and stands by the door waiting for me to let him out until I finish. Impatient bugger.)

Once it's kneaded to perfection (almost), I roll the dough around in a lightly oiled bowl and then let it rise for about an hour and a half.

I want to stand there for the entire 90 minutes and stare at the bread, watching it rise. But that’s just plain silly. So instead I go away, then come back and look at it every five minutes. This is much more productive of me.

After an hour and a half, the bread looks like this:

And then, once I follow the directions for patting it out and rolling it up so it's ready to proof, it looks like this:

Proofing, however, turns out to be impatience part two. Another hour! Argh! Only it's not so bad, with my six-minute check-ins and all. (Yep, up to six minutes now.)

And, it turns out, I'm not the only one who's impatient. Every time I walk into the kitchen to see how things are rising, this fellow perks up too, thinking it's time for a treat.

No bread for Butter.

(I'm really sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Then, finally, it has arisen! (Let me be grammatically questionable here, OK?)

Don't believe me? Here's the before:

And here's the after:

Guess what? Now it finally goes in the oven. And here's the beautiful part about baking with Julie: Thanks to the old-school oven, baking always takes considerably less time than the recipes say. So within 30 minutes, this baby is ready to come out.

Even before it's done, though, it smells like heaven. Mmmm. Bread-baking heaven. Mmmm.

And when it's done, I'm excited. (Betcha didn't see that coming.) Because it looks like bread, which is a very good sign. (At least I think—I am an amateur, so I could be wrong.)

At this point, things get tough. I dig down way deep inside and somehow come up with enough willpower to not touch the bread at all for another hour. I added italics just to emphasis that it was a tremendous feat.

And then, when an hour is up (to the second), I slice away.

And eat two pieces while slicing the loaf. Hey, get off me. I can’t help it. Do you realize how patient I've been?

The verdict: This bread is good. Maybe not the world's most heavenly bread. But good. Definitely cinnamon toast and sandwich-worthy. I'll make it again, maybe even next weekend.


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