Sunday, January 23, 2011

Give Us This Day...

Marge, Minnie and Mona, January 2011
These children know what's about to come out of this oven.  
Smart girls.

Freshly baked wait, homemade freshly baked bread.  Many people who engage in the baking of this culinary prize want you to think it's difficult.  Complicated.  Worth the $10-$15 per loaf that an artisan bread bakery will ask you to part with in order to enjoy their creations.

Robbery.  Baking a gorgeous loaf of bread in your own oven does not require any special skills, unless you consider the ability to use measuring cups and shop for simple ingredients 'special skills'.  My adventures with bread began 6 years ago when we moved our little family to the state of Washington.  Our oldest was just a baby, I didn't know a soul, the Father was extremely busy with a new job at a local university and I was unemployed.  I had months of cold weather stretched out in front of me and decided that I would try baking bread.  Yep.  Just like that I decided to jump in and give it a try.  Now, I did not grow up in a bread baking house.  My mom recalls how she used to make these yeast breads and tea rings, I'm sure she is telling the truth and I'm sure they were yummy, but I have no memory of these creations.  She'll also tell you she stopped making them because they were so much work and nobody appreciated them.  Must be true, hence, no memory.  Sorry Mom.  But I digress.

Long story short, I really had no experience with yeast breads.  Let me clarify what I mean here...quick breads, like your classic banana, pumpkin or zucchini, are breads with which I have lots of experience.  But I don't put them in the same category as yeast breads.  A quick bread, in my humble, unqualified opinion is not much different than following a cake recipe or any other simple baked good recipe.  Put in the ingredients, stir it, spray the loaf pan with Pam, pop it in the oven, 45 minutes.  Done.  Not hard if you can read.

The yeast bread, with the activating and the foaming and the incorporating and the kneading and the glutens and the rising and the poking and the punching and the stretching was truly a scary task to be tackled.  But back then, when it was just the 1 year old and me in the kitchen, and the grocery store was right down the street, I was willing to give it a shot.  Just read the directions right?  And the eventual failure can just be thrown away and nobody will ever have to know about it.  Right?

Well it turned out that there never was an epic failure.  Every single one I made was at least edible.  Some rose better than others.  Some were a little doughy raw on the inside, a few were a little too crunchy burned on the outside.  But we ate every single one of them.  Sweet breads, savory ones, international varieties, pitas, peasant loaves and baguettes.  I have tried more than I can count.  After 6 years of baking yeast breads my summary statement on baking bread is, "All you need is time.  And a good set of directions."  Fancy flours, special tools, stand mixers, bread boards, double ovens, blah, blah, blah.  All nice, but not necessary for making a gorgeous loaf of delicious bread.  This is not hard. I have become one of those people that bakes her own bread.  No, not the bread I use for grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly.  But during the cold winter months here in the Middle, we have soup and bread once a week, and that bread, we make at home.

TheMiddleBit is not going to turn into a food blog.  There are so many of those out there written by people who are infinitely more qualified than myself to share recipes and one of a kind creations.  They take gorgeous pictures of their food and invent new things weekly.  If that's what you're looking for go here.  And here.  And here.  Those are some of my favorites.  Know this.  Most of my recipes have been adapted from Cooking Light and I will give credit where credit is due.  I have scraped together a few from other sources and will note those of course too, but what I'm setting out to do here is give you a collection of some of my favorites.  To help you understand that baking these wonderful loaves is not difficult.  And to give you the benefit of some of the things I have learned in the last 6 years of making bread in my humble kitchen.  You'll find one here every Sunday, under the heading of Give Us This Day, until I run out of favorites, or until the weather gets warm again and I can no longer bring myself to bake a loaf of bread and raise the ambient temperature in my kitchen 15 degrees.

So...on that's one of our all time favorites.

Originally published by Cooking Light under the name Swedish Saffron Bread, this bread was renamed by my Middle Bit the first time I ever made it.  There was a lot going on in my kitchen that day, it was a new recipe, and I was expecting company.  There is much to be written about the wisdom stupidity of trying a new recipe when guests are on your doorstep.  Several children were asking for things, a timer was beeping somewhere, a dog was barking, the phone was probably get the picture.  It had a few more ingredients than some of the simpler loaves I do and at one point I screamed out, "Everyone just be quiet for a second!  These ingredients are making me nervous!"  Slowly backing out of the kitchen, they retreated to their bedrooms.  When the Father came in the door with our guests, he called out, "What's everybody up to?"  The Middle Bit yelled out, "Mommy's making Nervous Bread.  Stay out of the kitchen or she'll yell at you."  And thus our bread got its new name.

Nervous Bread

1 cup hot water
1/2 cup golden raisins *see note
1/4 cup currants *see note
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1 package dry yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 cup warm milk **see note
3 cups of all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs, divided
Cooking spray

*Note.  I have made this bread with golden raisins and currants as called for, however there are lots of other lovely combinations of dried fruits that work just as well.  I have used coarsely chopped dried dates, apricots and cherries.  I used regular raisins once in a pinch.  Cranberries work well too.  Bottom line, you need between 3/4 cup and 1 cup of coarsely chopped, dried fruit of some kind.  This is one of those places where you can personalize this recipe without too much stress and walk away feeling a little "cheffy".

**Note.  The recipe originally called for 2% and a true artisan bread baker will have an opinion on this one, but I have used everything from skim milk to heavy cream here, not because I was being clever, but because I failed to check my ingredients list before I started cooking.  The recipe also gets really specific about the temperature the milk is supposed to be heated to, but I think that just makes people afraid to try it if they don't have a thermometer.  Technically you're supposed to shoot for 110 degrees, but I never pay attention.  I measure the milk in my pyrex, pop it in the microwave for 1 minutes and wing it.  Always works.  Every time.  Promise.

1.  Put your hot water and your dried fruit in a bowl.  Ignore it for 10 minutes while you get everything else together.  When it's all plumped up again, drain the water off and set it aside.

2.  Put 1 tablespoon of sugar, saffron and yeast in a small bowl.  Pour the warmed milk over it and let it stand for 5 minutes until it gets foamy.  The saffron turns it this odd yellow color, that if you're not prepared for, might shock the heck out of you.  Don't panic.  That's what it's supposed to look like.

3.  In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of flour, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, salt and cinnamon.  Add your fruit, the scary, frothy yeast mixture, the melted butter and one of your eggs to the flour mixture and stir until dough forms.  You can add pinches of flour while you stir to get all the bits of the mixture from the side of the bowl to join the dough ball.

4.  Turn the dough ball out onto a lightly flour surface.  Knead it for at least 8 minutes and don't be afraid to add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to keep the dough from sticking to the counter or your hands.  You'll know it ok to stop adding flour when you can punch the dough into the counter and hold it in your hands without it sticking to everything.  If you add the flour slowly you'll be okay.  Worst case scenario, if you add too much flour, your arms will just get more of a work out and the dough will be a bit stiffer.  But it will still be edible.  Promise.  Go triceps!

5.  Put your dough ball in a large bowl coated with cooking spray.  Turn the dough to coat all the sides and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Find a warm spot for it to rise for 1 hour.  On a sunny day, I leave my dough on the counter.  Sometimes I turn my oven on for 5 minutes to warm it up and then turn it off and let the dough stay cozy in there while it rises.  Wait the whole hour and the press your finger into it.  If the indentation stays there, it's ready.  If the dough springs right back at you, give it another 15 minutes and poke it again.

6.  Dump it out onto a floured surface again and divide it into three equal portions.  The less you mess with it here, the better.  Just cut it into three parts and roll those into ropes about 18 inches long.  Part rolling, part stretching, don't be scared.  Lay them alongside each other and braid them.  Just flop one rope over the other until you get to the end.  I always have to go back and fix the ends.  Then pinch the ends together and turn them under to keep them from unraveling.  Spray it lightly with cooking spray, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise again for an hour.

7.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

8.  Lightly beat the remaining egg.  Gently brush the dough with the egg.  I use a pastry brush, but dipping a paper towel in the egg and sloshing it over the braid works just as well if you don't have a brush.  This step gives the bread a gorgeous shine.  Bake at 375 for 25 minutes.  Watch it during those last few minutes to make sure it doesn't get too brown.  Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack...or at least try and let it cool off a bit before diving into it so you and your loved ones don't burn yourselves.  Ours rarely makes it to the table intact.  They come out of the woodwork when it starts smelling yummy and I have to fight them off with the bread knife to have any left for the meal.

This sweet bread was originally run as a breakfast idea, but considering it takes a minimum of 2 1/2 hours from start to finish, I find it hard to imagine my family ever getting to have it for their morning meal.  I'm not getting up that early to bake bread.  We usually have it when we do brinner (breakfast for dinner) and there's never a crumb left over for the next morning.


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