There is an old Scottish superstition/tradition to bring in the New Year called First Footer. It is believed that the first person to set foot in your household on New Year’s Day determines the fortune of the family for the next year. To this end, my maternal grandfather, Melville St.Claire Halliday, made sure we left a loaf of bread on the doorstep on New Year’s Eve so the first person entering the house wouldn’t enter empty-handed and we were assured abundance for the coming months.
Bread has long been a symbol of life. Wheat from which bread is born has a unique attribute in the plant world. During its life cycle the grain of wheat dies and is reborn as a spike which provides human sustenance. Wheat is then made into bread which is a living growing entity. A fact to which anyone who has ever let bread over proof (sit) in a warm kitchen can attest.
Bread may be one of the simplest food items to make. After all, you need just yeast, flour, water, sugar and salt. Each ingredient has a function. Making bread requires a delicate balancing of the ingredients to yield the desired result. Flour provides gluten which is the protein and structure of bread. Yeast is the micro-organism that symbiotically feeds on the sugar producing alcohol and CO2 giving life to the bread. Salt, although used in minute amounts in bread making, should not be eliminated because it serves these critical functions. Just as in regular cooking, salt adds flavor. It also enhances texture. Brioche without salt would be dense and tough. Salt also slows the growth of yeast, helping keep those wild and crazy yeast cells from growing too fast. Without the proper amount of salt, bread will develop large gas bubbles and leave gaping holes in the bread.
Bread baking does take time, but that is part of the joy of it. Nurturing and developing the loaf then baking it. The aroma of fresh baking breads is one of the greatest olfactory sensations known to man.
If you have a mixer with a dough hook attachment your foray into bread making will be easier. It will do the work of kneading, but you will still have to guide your loaf along. Bread machines became all the rage 10-15 years ago with their cake mix approach, just add water and stand back, it made adequate bread that always came out the same – good but lacking in character. Even with a mixer you will still need to put some elbow grease in punching and rounding and stretching the dough.
Key components in bread making, besides the ingredients, are time and temperature. The water temperature is key – If too hot, you will murder the yeast and your bread will be flat and lifeless. If too cold, your yeast will never get moving. The water temperature will vary depending on the type of bread you are making. The idea is to keep the temperature of the dough (roughly 90 degrees), even through the process. The friction of the mixer will also add heat to the dough.
Don’t close the website and run to the store for a loaf of bread. The joy you will get when your house is filled with the warm smell of fresh bread, and you pull the loaf you nurtured from a bag of flour and envelope of yeast and tap water will be worth it. Before you venture into the kitchen, knead these thoughts on bread and you will have the proof that it is all worth the effort and not a half-baked idea.
“Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” Carmen McRae
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Mahatma Gandhi
“How can a nation be great, if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” M.F.K Fisher
This month try these recipes for Basic Baguette and Brioche. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
(A workout but worth the effort)
- 1 package ¼ oz active dry yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1¼ cups water heated to 108 degrees
- 4 cups plus unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2½ tsp salt
Place warm water in bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and yeast. Let stand five minutes until foamy. Stir in half the flour and salt. Mix until dough forms. Add in remaining flour. Mix until stiff dough forms. Lightly flour work surface. Knead dough eight minutes or until smooth and elastic. It should stretch between fingertips and give a window pane effect. Turn dough onto lightly oiled bowl. Cover in plastic wrap. Let proof (sit) 1½ hours until double in size.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Punch down dough. Stretch to 21 inches long, 3 inches wide. Fold and shape. Pinch end. Place dough diagonally on greased cookie sheet. Let rise 30 minutes. Slash 3-4 times diagonally with razor. Bake 30 minutes until golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. For better crust, preheat oven 1 hour with Dutch oven filled with water. Humidity will give better crust and texture.
- ⅔ cup milk heated to 105 degrees
- 2 envelopes active dry yeast
- 4 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tsps salt
- 3 large eggs
- ¼ cup sugar
- 3 sticks butter
- 1 egg plus1 tbsp butter for glaze
In electric mixer, using dough hook, add milk and yeast. Add in flour and salt. Mix until incorporated, scraping bowl. Add eggs one at a time, scraping and incorporating each time. Add sugar. Beat on medium for three minutes. Reduce to low speed. Add butter one piece at a time. Increase to medium speed. Beat 7 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and proof (sit) one hour. Uncover. Deflate. Refrigerate.
Deflate dough every half hour for 2 hours. Cover and chill overnight.
Butter and flour 3 loaf pans. Divide dough into 3 pieces. Divide each piece into four and shape into log and line loaf pan. Cover pans and proof (sit) until double about two hours.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Glaze loaves with egg wash. Bake 30 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Unmold. Let cool one hour before use.
Jon Davies is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University of Culinary Arts. His work as a chef has taken him to Aspen, Colorado; Cape May, NJ; and the odd private jet for culinary gigs for the rich and famous.