A couple of days ago, I mentioned that when I bake homemade bread, I tend to eat a lot of homemade bread. I was more than a little surprised that out of everything in that particular Random Tuesday Thoughts post, most of the comments I got were about homemade bread. How good it is. How yummy. How my readers have either put or given away their bread machines to avoid temptation.
How awful! What could possibly be better than a slice of fresh-from-the-oven, homemade bread?
Not much, that’s what.
When I was growing up, I didn’t give much thought to bread. Living in Dallas, less than 10 miles from the plant on Central Expressway, Mrs. Baird’s sandwich-sliced white bread was the standard for all breads – it’s what my grandmother bought, what my mother bought, and what I bought (here in Ohio, they not only don’t know who Mrs. Baird is, but if you ask for sandwich-sliced bread they look at you like you’ve lost your mind). As a result, I’d never given much thought to bread; it was something you smeared with Miracle Whip before you layered it with lettuce, tomato and crisply-cooked strips of bacon (because I love me a good BLT). As I got older, bread became categorized – the soft, white stuff I served the kids as peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, or the God-awful, indestructible bricks my mother began purchasing; what my brother and I called “stick and twig loaf” – great for your colon, but unappetizing as hell.
I never actually baked bread until I met Beloved and we bought a bread machine on a whim one day. We went through the typical new-bread-machine-owner infatuation, searching out new bread machine recipes and baking it frequently. But alas! It didn’t last, and soon I was back to purchasing soft, squishy, Mrs. Baird’s sandwich-sliced white bread. Time marched on and, for various reasons, the bread machine made a brief reappearance after I moved to Ohio, although I soon became frustrated with the perfectly square loaves with a hole in the bottom from the paddle attachment.
Then Beloved gave me my heart’s desire for my birthday: a KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer.
With a dough hook.
This is my recipe for white bread; it makes two 1 1/4 pound loaves. It is much softer than most white bread recipes, although not as soft as bread purchased in a store (no chemicals!), and makes excellent sandwiches. The recipe calls for unbleached all-purpose flour (don’t substitute) and the dough is very moist and soft, so it’s a little difficult to knead by hand. I’ve done it, but it’s just simpler if kneaded in the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook. And it will prevent you from kneading in too much flour to keep it from sticking to your hands, causing the loaf to be heavy and dry.
Also, the instructions state to place a baking sheet or cast-iron skillet in the bottom of the cold oven, allowing it to get hot when you pre-heat the oven, then to throw a handful of ice cubes on it when you put the bread in. Don’t skip this step; it gives the bread a good crust and will help prevent the top of the bread from falling or sinking.
Remember that the rising times will be longer if your kitchen is cold, and shorter if it’s exceptionally warm.
White Sandwich Bread
two 1 1/4 pound loaves
4 1/2 cups plus two tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
Scant 1 3/4 cups water, at room temperature
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup dry nonfat milk
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast OR 2 packages dry active yeast
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
In the mixer bowl, add the water, honey, butter, flour, dry milk and yeast. Mix with the dough hook on low speed until the flour is moistened enough to form a rough dough. Scrape down the sides with a spatula and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow to rest for 20 minutes.
After the 20 minutes is up, remove the plastic wrap and add the salt. Knead the dough using the dough hook on medium speed for 10 – 12 minutes, or until the dough begins to come away from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be smooth and shiny and stick to your fingers. If the dough is not stiff, knead in a little flour, a tablespoon at a time; if it is too dry (not at all sticky), then knead in a little water, a teaspoon at a time.
Using an oiled, flexible spatula, scrape the dough into a large (4-quart) bowl that has been lightly oiled; turn the dough to coat it then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise (ideally at 75° to 80° F) until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Again using an oiled, flexible spatula, scrape the dough out onto a floured counter; press it down gently with your hands. It should be full of air but resilient; try to maintain as many of the air bubbles as you can as you flatten it. Pull out and fold the dough over from all sides into a tight package, then set it back in the bowl – it will fill the bowl more than it did originally. Oil the surface of the dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rise until double once more, 1 to 1 1/2 hours longer.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, flatten gently with your hands, deflating any large air bubbles, and cut it in half. Shape each half into a loaf shape and place into buttered or oiled 8″ x 4″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pans; cover each with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Allow to rise until the center of the dough is about 1 inch above the edge of the pans, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350° F 45 minutes before baking. Have an oven shelf on the lower third of the oven and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it. Place a baking sheet or cast-iron skillet on the floor of the oven if you can, or on the lowest shelf of the oven if you cannot.
When the bread is ready to bake, toss 1/2 cup ice cubes onto the cast-iron skillet or baking sheet at the bottom of the oven, then quickly but gently place the loaves on the hot baking stone or sheet above and immediately shut the door. Bake for 50 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Halfway through, turn the pans around for even baking.
Remove the bread from oven and place on a wire rack; brush the top with melted butter if desired. Carefully turn the loaves out of the pans and cool, top side up, on the wire rack for at least 1 hour before slicing.
To store, wrap the bread tightly and completely in plastic wrap and set in a cool, dry place. It will remain fresh for 2 – 3 days (if it lasts that long). It also freezes well.