As my longtime readers know, I like to bake bread. It's good for you- it doesn't have the preservatives and artificial ingredients found in most commercial bread. It can save you money, because you can make a lot of loaves of bread with less money than you'd spend to buy the same amount of bread - to buy the same number of loaves made from one batch of dough, it would cost me more than ten dollars!
Unfortunately, I haven't made the time to make any bread since, oh, I think the week before Elizabeth was born. It's been high time that I haul out my Kitchen Aid stand mixer - 6 quarts of Professional Power. Rah! (And, a salute to my military brothers and sisters, as it used to be entirely Imperial Grey, but now it's half Imperial Grey, half Army Green, courtesy of the sun.)
The warm weather this past week is really what inspired me. We were out cleaning the lawn in preparation for the greening season - clipping out old growth from the bushes, raking the last few leaves from the fall, and chasing Elizabeth as she tried to climb up and down the porch steps while eating potting soil. Little bugs were flying around, and I remembered something my mom told me, "Carmen said the best time to bake bread is when the little black bugs are flying in the spring." (At least, it was something like that.) Carmen is a source to be trusted. She ran her own bakery for years, and she personally customized the bread recipe that my mother and I both use for baking our 100% whole wheat bread. (One might ask, how can a bread recipe be customized? Short answer - food allergies and electric mixer vs. hand mixer.)
My mom called me to say that she was going to bake bread, but that ALAS! she had misplaced her recipe! I found the e-copy she had sent me (with her idiot-proofing comments that help me know how to bake it even when she's 250 miles away) and fired it back across the web to her. I knew it was time to get the flour out, and the yeast bubbling. This is where the "art" part of bread making comes in.
Although recipes for bread can be relatively straight forward, the information that is not presented in the recipe are the things that separate a good loaf from a great loaf. I have yet to achieve the latter to my satisfaction. As an impatient baker, this is a challenge for me. Baking bread, and the exact quantities of ingredients are, well, not exact. It's an art.
The information not present in a recipe comes through years of practice. Did you know the weather makes a difference in how much water you need to add to your bread? If it's humid, it usually takes less water. Opening the door on your oven at the wrong time can lead to fallen crusts. The way you proof your yeast, the temperature of your bowl before you add your water, the feel of the dough as you knead it all contribute to the quality of the final product. Whenever I have a question about whether the dough is sufficiently kneaded, my mother says, "What does it feel like? What does it look like? Are there long stretchy fibers?" I say, "Well, it feels like dough....yes, but how long is long?" And forming your loaves? You guessed it - an art.
Unfortunately for me, I have yet to master the art of bread making. This time, the humidity and my impatience both interfered with the final appearance of my bread. At least the bread still tastes good!