I have a new favorite bread recipe. This produces a bread with a dense crumb, which means that it stales slowly (not that this is usually a problem around here) and slices evenly – excellent for sandwiches and toast.
The second rise makes all the difference – it does add an hour to the total time, but I think it’s worth it!
3 teaspoons (~ two packages) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water, in a small bowl
6-7 cups flour
1 cup milk
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2-4 tablespoons butter / margarine
1 tablespoon salt
Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water, add a pinch of sugar and stir gently. Leave it alone for about ten minutes, until the yeast is nice and frothy.
Meanwhile, warm the milk, water and butter to just above body temperature. It should be warm, not hot – the butter should barely melt in it. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve completely.
Put two cups of the flour into the mixing bowl of your stand mixer (if you have one) or a large bowl (if you don’t). Add the milk mixture and stir thoroughly, then add the foamy yeast. (Thanks for catching that, Hilary! You know what's funny? I have actually forgotten this step IN PRACTICE, more than once!!!)
The recipe splits here. If you’ve got a stand mixer with a dough hook, add four cups of flour to the bowl and turn the mixer on ‘low’. Watch the dough – you want that ‘elastic ball’, one that begins to pull cleanly away from the bowl. Not “and then I could use it to make a soufflé” cleanly, by the way – cleanly as in, “there is more dough staying with the ball than clinging to the sides of the bowl”. Add flour in quarter-cup increments until you see this. The amount of dough you need is going to change from season to season. On rainy days, you might need more than on dry days – I have as much as a full cup difference in the dead of winter compared to the height of summer.
Once you’ve got that elastic ball thing going, tidy up the kitchen for five to ten minutes while the stand mixer does all the work. Try to look exhausted as you then turn it out into a greased bowl, flip the dough over to coat the top (it keeps it moist as it rises and prevents that nasty, cracky not-really-a-crust-but-pretends-to-be-one crust from forming on the top).
Put a clean towel over it and let it rise for about an hour in a warm place. I often use my oven – I turn it on briefly, then set the dough in there to rise. It rises evenly regardless of season, and more importantly, no Unauthorized Personnel are able to stick their fingers in it and then yell, “Uh-oh, Mommy! Is YUCKY!!”
If you do not have a stand mixer, you will add as much flour as you can mixing with your wooden spoon. When it becomes too much to bear, turn the dough out on a well-floured surface and knead it by hand. Continue adding flour until you’ve got that same elastic ball thing going. Once you’ve got it, keep on kneading for about ten minutes. What you’re doing is breaking down the gluten in the bread so that it gets “stretchy” – it’ll start capturing the bubbles from the yeast and make it rise.
I tell you this so that you have a goal, because kneading bread can either be tremendously therapeutic or thumping annoying, depending on what kind of day you’re having. If it is annoying you today, remember that you are making a difference with all this kneading!
Same deal with the greased bowl – flip it over – cover with towel – ignore for an hour thing. It should rise to about double the original mass over this time.
After an hour, turn it out of the bowl, knead it a couple two-three-five times, then put it back in the bowl, cover it with a towel and leave it alone for thirty minutes to an hour – until it has doubled again.
Turn your oven on to 425 while you shape your loaves. Punch down the dough and cut it in half. Make a rectangle out of each half, then roll it up like a jelly roll, pinch the ends and tuck them under. Roll the log back and forth, smoothing it down and making it lovely.
Then put it into a greased loaf pan, cover with the towel and let rise for between 20 and 30 minutes, depending. Sometimes my loaves are perfect in 20 minutes, sometimes it’s been 35 and I’m getting impatient. When they’ve risen up over the edges of your pans – but before they are ‘blossoming’ up over the top – slip them into the 425 degree oven and set the timer for ten minutes.
In ten minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 350 and set the timer for another 20 minutes. They should be getting nice and dark on top, and sound hollow when you tap the tops of them.
Let them cool in their pans for about five minutes, then pull them out of the pans and set them on wire racks to cool the rest of the way.
You can skip that ‘knead and let rise again’ step if you’re short on time – but I find that the ‘sandwich’ qualities are greatly enhanced by it.
You can make this without the milk (substitute equal volume water) and butter (olive or vegetable oil). It makes a very light airy bread with a flavor I call “Italian” because it reminds me of pizza dough. (Add some dried oregano to it and shape in sticks rather than loaves and you’ve got yourself a real party.)
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