Learning to Bake Bread

Baking bread is an act of love.  Nothing says “home” quite like it: the soul-warming smell of freshly baked bread is domestic bliss itself, say nothing about toasting a slice and slathering it with butter and jam, or squishing a soft-boiled egg on top, or smearing it with peanut butter and honey.  Yum…

For me, bread baking is particularly effective therapy.  It takes time, of course, and lots of it.  But that’s part of the appeal.  I must commit several hours of the day to my task, not because I fuss over the bread for hours, but because I must be available to pay attention to it.  Each step takes time, and the process cannot be rushed.  The bread will tell me when it’s ready.  And if I fail to pay attention, as I have from time to time, then my dough will overflow and like Antony with only half of Strega Nona’s magic, I will not be able to get it right again.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.  If not, go out and buy Tomie DePaola’s Strega Nona.  Read it.  Read it to yourself, your kids, your friends, your friends’ kids, your neighbors’ kids, your brothers’ kids, your sisters’ kids, your in-laws’ kids.  You must not spend another moment living a life that does not include Strega Nona.  Seriously.

Tomie DePaola’s _Strega Nona_.

Like Antony, if you learn too hastily then you’ll never really get things to come out right.

Baking bread isn’t something that is learned overnight.  I made a lot of bricks and doorstops and various other kinds of inedibly dense loaves before I got the hang of it.  And still, sometimes things go awry.  But that’s the whole point.  There are times when life calls for a packaged mix–cake, brownies, quick breads, etc.  Water, oil, eggs, stir, pour, bake, done.  Bread baking is not for those days.  It’s for the days when I want to step into my Kitchen-Cathedral and pay homage.  It’s for those days when I want to punctuate my work, chores, bills, and errands with stirring, kneading, rising, shaping, and baking.

It’s also for days when we’re out of bread.  Bread is nothing if not practical food.

Baking bread is very often a skill passed down from a grandmother, aunt, mother, friend.  While I have had instruction from friends here and there, I decided to learn to bake bread on my own.  I used Laurel Robertson’s The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book as my guide.  I highly recommend it.

My favorite book for learning to bake bread.

Vegetarians who came of age in the 1970’s are likely familiar with Laurel’s Kitchen, a veritable encyclopedia of whole-food cookery written by a group of friends in a collective living community (yes, that’s a fancy way of saying “hippie commune”).  Laurel’s Kitchen is fantastic, and it lives on my bookshelf next to the Moosewood cookbooks.  I love 70’s-era vegetarian cookbooks.

The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book is geared toward whole-foods living, so the recipes focus on whole grains (you won’t find any bleached-white sandwich bread here).  But the recipes do result in light, airy loaves where whole-wheat breads are so often dense and brick-like.  The instructions alone are worth the price of the book.  The entire first chapter is a lengthy step-by-step guide to baking bread.  Each step, from mixing to kneading to slicing and storing, is thoroughly explained.  We’re talking paragraphs on each step, not a mere jumble of phrases like “knead until smooth, let rise until doubled.”  Instead, Laurel spells out exactly what you and the bread should be doing.

Many of the recipes are among my favorites, and will likely feature here at some point.  The Deluxe Raisin Bread is wonderful, as is the Buttermilk Whole Wheat bread (as loaves or dinner rolls).  There are chapters on sprouted breads, beans, legumes, fruits, and nuts.  Laurel explains how yeast works and devotes sections to discussing what impact dairy, butter, oil, honey, and sugars have on the final product.  It’s exactly the kind of smart, thoughtful, informative instruction manual a novice baker needs.  It’s a thorough guide through the confusing forest of bread baking, and I love it.

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