What is the most comforting smell to come home to at the end of a long day? Fresh baked warm, buttery bread. It has a way of calming my nerves and relaxing my muscles. The ritual of bread making has long been a form of meditation for me. Making fresh, hot bread is like relaxing in the sun on a warm summer day, or a chat with an old friend. It serves to calm my nerves, and relax my mind.
The aroma of the fresh ground flour is reminiscent of the smells in an old fashioned furniture shop; the smell of the hot wood just sawn, and the deep warmth of the sawdust. The warmth of the fresh ground flour helps the yeast to grow and develop the springy elasticity in each slice of bread. By grinding fresh flour I am safeguarding the quality of each new batch of bread.
Once the flour is ground, I begin mixing the dough, using enough water to create a texture similar to pancakes, this step is called sponging. Next I let the warm dough sponge; it looks like the bubbling mud pots in Yellowstone. The pungent smell of the yeast growing in flour is an almost acrid, yet pleasant aroma. Letting the dough sponge allows the yeast to grow, and helps provide a light yet supple loaf of bread. Sponging helps develop the gluten, or glue that holds the bread together, and gives it elasticity. The sponging period resembles early years in school; of learning and setting a foundation for the rest of our lives. The dough is setting a foundation of flavor, in addition to developing structure for the loaf of bread.
Once the dough has sponged, I further the development of the gluten by kneading the dough. The rhythmic pushing, pulling, and tugging to develop the gluten is like the process of repetition in learning. The more I knead the more the gluten or foundation of the bread will develop. It could be said that the kneading step in bread making is the most important aspect. The amount of kneading changes the texture bread dramatically; if the dough is kneaded too little the bread will crumble and fall apart. I know my dough is ready to rest, and rise for the first time when it forms a ball, and is very uniform and pliable.
The rest and rise period will ensure a silky light bread that melts in your mouth. While the dough rests it will rise and become easier to work and shape. Dough that is ready to shape has a very sensual feel; it’s soft, smooth, and just firm enough. The dough needs to be handled carefully think of it as a lover, if handled too roughly it will become tough and difficult to live with. Once shaped into loaves half the size I desire, they need to be left to rise until about double in size. I always cover the loaves so a crust doesn’t form that will prevent them from rising properly. The perfect temperature for dough to raise feels like sitting in front of a window after the sun rises on a summer day.
What is the best way to bake the bread? Though there are many ways to do it I like to start with a much hotter oven than I intend to bake the bread with. When pre-heating the oven, place a baking sheet on the lower rack of the oven. Once the oven temperature is fifty to seventy five degrees hotter than the intended baking temperature, place the loaves on the upper rack in the oven. Throw about one and a half to two cups of ice onto the baking sheet, and return the temperature of the oven to the desired baking temperature for the bread. This helps develop a crispy, crusty loaf of bread.
To achieve the correct doneness the loaves, should bake until there is a deep resonating thump when you tap them with the back of a spoon. If they sound solid then they will still be doughy in the middle. Once the bread is done cooking you should coat the crust with a thin layer of butter. This serves a dual purpose; it will soften the crust and change the ultimate flavor of the bread. Once the hot loaves are out of the oven buttered, and rested for about fifteen minutes, I like to cut into my loaf to experience comfort of a fresh soft aromatic slice of bread.
The wispy steam rising out of the loaf invokes the feelings from childhood, of going to grandma’s house, and having a slice of fresh hot buttered bread. The savory aroma of the bread and the comfort of being in a safe place at Grandma’s house are fond memories. Nothing compares to sharing a slice of warm homemade bread, with butter and fresh raspberry jam on it, and a tall glass of cold milk with your best friend.