Jamie over at Life’s a Feast just blogged about bread baking. Memories of my early efforts are flooding my brain. Even with something as mundane as bread, I’m reminded that it’s a big ol’ goofy world.
John Prine is a peach and most of his songs are national treasures .(I have no idea why I own no John Prine – I must rectify this.) The title alone of It’s a Big Ol’ Goofy World is a phrase I use often. My life seems to have taken more twists and turns than can possibly be normal. It’s a big ol’ goofy world.
In 1972 or so, I decided that no self-respecting hippy wannabe could call her self an Earth Mother without bread making on her resume. (Candle making and macrame are also required, but I never got around to those two.) So, I pulled out my mother’s ancient cookbook, inherited from an even older relative, and set to.
It was, in keeping with early times of the cookbook, a recipe for basic white bread – the kind of bread that for years and years housewives made weekly to supply the household. It was assumed, I think, that one pretty much knew how to make bread.
Most people need either really, really good directions on the technique or they need someone to show them. Good bread is less about ingredients than it is about how you go about combining those ingredients and working them.
After the lump of Pillsbury flour brick came out of the oven and even the dog wouldn’t eat it, I went on a quest looking for the perfect recipe. I was just 13 and my range was limited. Brick after brick, I didn’t lose enthusiasm for learning how to do this, but I was supremely aggravated. ‘Course I was in the throes of puberty and spent most of my time aggravated about something.
At the time, my parents were in the process of turning a screened-in-porch into a family room. My dad hired one of the Marines under his command to do the wiring – seems the guy was a licensed electrician as well as a grunt.
He was an odd character. One afternoon, I was fussing with bread bricks when he wandered into the kitchen for a glass of water. I fussed and fumed and probably threw a few bowls around. He told me I was going about it wrong. One thing led to another and the kind-of-odd, crusty gunny sergeant/electrician showed me how to make bread. Somewhere during the process, my mom wandered into the kitchen and sat at the table watching.
There was great success. I’m sure I celebrated by heading to my bedroom and listening to this:
Here’s the recipe:
2 pkgs of yeast (regular, not fast rising)
¾ cup of warm water
2 cups of lukewarm milk (scalded then cooled)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter (softened)
1 tablespoon of salt
7 to 8 cups of white, all-purpose flour (or 6 to 9, it depends)
Besides the bread bowl, you’ll need two standard bread pans, a wooden spoon (for aesthetics because any kind of big spoon will work), measuring spoons and cups, a stove, an oven, dish towels, rolling pin and a stereo.
Over the years, I’ve expanded on the gunny sergeant’s technique. Here’s how I go about it:
1. You should have one mother of a bread bowl. Mine is huge – lobster pot huge. If not, you can still do this and I’ll explain later.
2. Scald the milk (heat until bubbles form around the edges of the pan and then let cool to room temperature – I don’t know why this is necessary – sometimes I do it, sometimes I don’t.
3. Put the warm water in the bowl, add the yeast and sugar and let it proof. Proofing means to activate the yeast. The yeast will change from grainy stuff that looks a bit like sand to a bubbling sludge. If it doesn’t, your yeast is dead and you need to start over.
4. Put a slow, oozy, belly-rubbing song on the stereo (I’m fond of the blues for this stage – any of the old guys are good, but I have a thing for Clapton).
(This version of The Sky is Crying is much better than Stevie Ray’s (no, really!)
5. Add the milk, butter, salt and 3 or 4 cups of flour. Stir to the beat of the music until it’s a uniform gloppy mess.
6. Heap the remaining flour on a clean part of your table, make a well in the center of it, and pour the gloppy mess into the well.
7. Still grooving to the music, start working the glop into the flour. When you have a mass that isn’t sticking to everything, begin a push, pull, turn kneading until it quits absorbing the flour. (The amounts of flour dough will take is dependent on the flour, humidity, and whether or not there’s a yellow Volkswagen parked in front of a fire hydrant somewhere in Missouri.)
8. At this point, you want to rest the dough for a bit. Put some more music on. – something rhythmic with a strong beat. Wash your bowl and dry it. Sprinkle the bottom with a bit of flour. Put the dough in the big bowl. If you don’t have a big bowl, lightly flour your table and use it.
9. Using the same kneading method and shaking your bootie, work the dough until it begins to change texture. You know you’re done when the surface begins to look like a bad peel after a sunburn. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes depending on your kneading and the dough. (If the bowl isn’t big enough, you can’t knead in the bowl and have to use the table.).
10. Turn on your oven and set it for 100 degrees. Remove the dough from the bowl, grease it liberally with butter, put the dough in the bowl and cover with a dish towel.
11. Turn off the oven and put the bowl in the oven. If the humidity in your house is especially low, put a shallow pan of hot water in the oven with the bowl. Laundry rooms are also good spots to raise dough, especially if you’re doing laundry while making bread.
12. Let the dough rise until doubled. You know it’s done if you can poke your finger in the top and the impression remains. Punch the dough down which means deflate it. Just poke it, or make a fist and punch it, or whatever until it goes back to its original size before the rising.
13. Let it rest for 15 minutes or so. Grease two bread pans with shortening (not butter).
14. Divide it into two balls.
15. Take one ball and, using a rolling pin, roll it out until it’s a rectangle roughly 9” x 18”.
16. Roll it tightly, stretching the dough for uniformity as necessary. Tuck the ends under, smoosh until it’s the length of your pan, and plop it into the pan. Cover it with a towel. Repeat with second ball of dough.
17. Put it back into the oven (which is still off) and let it rise until doubled.
18. Brush loaves lightly with melted butter.
19. Turn oven to 425F Don’t preheat, it’s best to begin baking in a cool oven, however not absolutely critical. Arrange pans so that they are not touching and tops of pan are even with the center of the oven.
20. Bake about 35 minutes until tops are lightly brown. Knock on the top – if it sounds hollow, it’s done. Take out and let cool a bit – if it’s too hot when you slice it, it gets gummy and squished.
21. Slice, slather butter, and moan with delight. (Save the heel – end crust – for me, it’s my favorite part.)
22. If you don’t actually eat it all (gasp!) before it begins to go stale, it makes superb toast.
This is really fabulous and it’s now required fare at all the holiday dinners. Left-over turkey sandwiches take on a new form of perfection with this bread. From beginning to end, it’s about 3-5 hours.
What strikes me as odd about this bread tradition is that the gunny sergeant was arrested a few days after teaching me bread making for child molestation. My mother, with keen mother radar, had thought there was something off and this explained why she never left me alone with him.
I learned how to make bread from a child molester. Thirty-six years later, I still make bread the way he taught me. And as for why I have a Pillsbury Doughboy – well, that’s another story.