Adventures in Breadbaking

Someone, somewhere, must have used a similar title for a post such as this - playing off the theme of Adventures in Babysitting; a movie from the late 1980s that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a babysitter who ends up having to take two teenagers into the big city while she is babysitting them and everything turns into chaos. It's a great movie. I'd almost go so far to call it a classic comedy. In the movie, nearly everything that can possibly go wrong, goes wrong. Well, I felt just like Elizabeth Shue in that movie while I was baking my first real loaf of yeasted, kneaded bread.

Now, I've talked before on here how afraid I am of baking bread. Not of the yeasty parts of it, but the kneady parts of it. Now I know why, and I feel that my fear was grounded! While I had visions of following in Cookiecrumb's footsteps, making beautiful bread in less than 5 minutes a day, at the time I just couldn't justify buying myself another cookbook (Yet. I still have to work my brain around that silly married joint account thing...). Instead, I reserved myself to pull out the two remaining packages I had of dry active yeast (much cheaper than a new cookbook), and give it a whirl. I raided my cookbook collection (it looks so meager these days, after storing so many of them before the move), and I finally settled on Molly Katzen's Basic Bread recipe, from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest - one of the first cookbooks I bought on my own (when I joined my first CSA, I had absolutely no idea to do with the strange vegetables that came in my box that I had never heard of - like chard and kale and dandelion greens). I chose her recipe because it had cute little drawings of the whole process (like a good scientist, little cute drawings and pretty-colored bubbling waters always get me).

Well, I learned a few things during my endeavour. First of all, I did everything wrong.

I added the flour before whisking together the yeast and the water and the honey together in the "sponge." Oh, wait, and I realized after about 20 minutes that I forgot to even add the honey. It said "a drop" of honey (take a second here to go see Cookiecrumb's great little narrative on the use of words like "a drop," a "smidgen," a "dash"...), so I stuck my fingers in the honey (don't worry, that stuff is sterile) and swirled them around in the mixture to get it off, and then I gave it a bit longer. Did I mention I also lost some of the yeast? Yep. Because apparently, a PhD doesn't qualify you as a good yeast-package opener. A bunch of yeast got stuck in the package and I simply could. not. get. the. little. suckers. out. I eventually gave up, after much cursing.

After about 45 minutes, it looked like this...a little doughy volcano gently starting to ease out of the liquid mess:

Okay, so it didn't seem like that big of a deal that I had screwed up the beginning. I added the rest of "the mix" of molasses, honey, salt and oil (this time I did have the foresight to mix that together before adding it to my sponge). Then, I started adding the "additional" cups of flour and quickly learned that:

You should wear deodorant when baking bread. Sure, I normally wear deodorant (while I may be from hippy dippy Eugene, I'm not a hippy dippy type myself...well, at least not the non-shaving, non-deodorant wearing hippy dippy type...though I do loves me some hippies sometimes). But kneading? That shit is some tough work! I was sweating. My wrists hurt. It was nearly impossible to avoid sprinkling/throwing flour all over everything. Including my camera. And my shoes. And the floor. And the ceiling. Leading me to realize that I should have worn an apron. Did I mention that I also forgot to take the all-purpose flour out of the freezer prior to using it? I'm sure Molly Katzen would have had a heart attack if she knew. I got about 6 of the 7 cups of flour that was supposed to be in it before the darn dough just wouldn't accept anymore. So I started kneading.

After kneading for what felt like an eternity (5 minutes), I kneaded for another 21 minutes. I eventually got most of that last cup of flour in there. Molly - yes, we were on a first name basis after she put me through all of that - says you can't over knead if doing this by hand, only under-knead (which, apparently will turn your bread into solid bricks, something I'm quite good at, but hadn't realized why). So I figured what the hell? If I was going to do this, I might as well knead my little heart/arms/fingers out and see if she was right. Once I stopped pushing so hard that I was tearing the bread (I'm a rock climber! I couldn't help it! I have burly biceps!) and relaxed into it, it seemed like things were going along fine. Until I read Molly's description of what properly kneaded bread is supposed to feel like when it's done: an earlobe.

An earlobe, huh?

I felt my ear with my (sort of) clean fingers. Nope. No earlobe in my bread. So, I kept kneading. After another eternity (5 minutes), I finally gave up, shaped it into a round sort of thing, put it back in my (dirty, floury) bowl and graced it with a few glugs of olive oil. Then I let it rise, trying not to peek at it lest it decide to thwart me further for doing so, and set off to do some work for a while, trying to ignore the thing growing in my kitchen.

After an hour, I went back and peeked under the tea towel (I knew those things had to be good for something after arguing with LB that we absolutely had to put them on the wedding registry). And my bread had somehow - risen. Bringing me to my next lesson.

Punching bread is a far better way to get out your frustrations than punching your significant other (in the arm, of course, after they make a smart-ass remark). And almost as satisfying.

But you have to restrain yourself and only punch it once (or twice). Until it deflates, really. Sort of how your significant other would when you showed him how much you appreciated his smart-ass remark. Then, you have to knead it some more (WHAT?! You've got to be kidding me!). Another 10 minutes. Ug. I thought to myself: Maybe I should take up bread baking instead of rock climbing. It's a similar work out, and you don't get sunburned. I've decided that Grandmas, the ones that used to do this daily, those are women who are far more womanly (and burly) than I.

I also discovered that granite countertops are awesome for kneading bread - nothing sticks to it - and this is all fine and dandy unless you are five feet tall. Like I am. And your counters are a good 4'5" at least. I did most of my kneading standing on a kitchen stool so that I could put my weight into it. Please, don't picture that. Please. Suffice it to say my elbows were reaching far above my head. I divided my bread into two round loaves (I no longer own loaf pans), rolled it just like the pretty little drawings said (well, one of them like the pretty drawings, but I never was good at following directions, besides this way I could tell if my way was better than her way, and...well, her way won), and then I put it on the counter and let the loaves rise again (Oh!! So that's why they use those wooden peels! So that it doesn't stick to the counter and deflate! Oh!! ...oh, sheeeet!!). So much waiting, and sadly...

Patience is not one of my finer virtues.

Finally, finally, I felt it had doubled in size again. Well, close enough. I put my trusty baking stoneware baking sheet in the oven to heat up and tried to find something to "spritz" my bread with so I could get that crispy crust everyone talks about. Well, there are no spritzers in this house. At least not any I can use with food. So, I gave up and decided I would have non-spritzed semi-crusty bread and that that would be just fine with me. I stuck it in the oven. 425F for 15 minutes, then turn it down to 375F. Another 25 and it was done (besides that elusive "thumping" thing).

And what to my wondering (impatient, flour-stained) eyes did appear? Lo and behold, after 40 minutes, I had two crusty, handmade, wrist-demolishing, sweat-producing, patience-testing, almost beautiful loaves of nearly crusty bread, fresh out of the oven - smelling of molasses and yeast and warmth and tradition. And they weren't even as dense as I thought they would be...in fact, they were less dense than the Irish Soda Bread I made a while back. And you know what? They tasted pretty darn good for a first try. Somehow, like Elizabeth Shue in the movie, it all seemed to turn out all right.

But I think maybe I'll go buy that cookbook now.

15 comments from you:

Debinhawaii said...

Very funny post! This is why I don't bake bread--I don't mountain climb and would have given up after 5 minutes of kneading! Your bread looks wonderful, if it were me I would varnish it and put it in a place of honor in my house. (OK maybe not but it would be hard to eat it and have it disappear after all that work!)

Christie @ fig&cherry said...

Oooh your bread looks perfect!

I'm only 4'11 so I can empathise completely! I get hubby to do the kneading... ;)

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Holy Moly when I saw you were baking bread I settled in .. . . wonderful fun read! Oh my yes! And oh my yes did you get great bread!!

Go Michelle!!!
Oh, don't go buy that book. Bake this again and see if it doesn't all make more sense. You'll find you've made a big advance.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest I've used many times! Good book.

cookiecrumb said...

It's beautiful! Looks perfect, so congratulations.
Kneading: that's also hippie-dippy. Supposed to put you in a good hormonal state or something. Eep.
Yeah, go buy the book. Let the refrigerator do all the work.

Zoomie said...

Lovely bread - really perfect! Well worth a little sweating and swearing, no?

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

And I forgot: now you know a must have in your dream kitchen, an area that is make for us shorties. I have what I call my bake corner. The counter is in a corner and only about 4 ft wide but its table high making it perfect for kneading. It makes a huge difference!!

vlb5757 said...

M-you crack me up. Kneading bread is another form of marriage counseling. Didn't you know that?? lol! I can't tell you how many times I had kneaded bread and had more on the floor and myself than on the counter. I promise, the more you do it the better you get. I have a Kitchen Aid but I would much rather knead bread while thinking about some unruly student that I would like to strangle. It's much safer for everyone! Try again and you will find you do much better. you are so funny!

Anonymous said...

The best part is how cute you're little hand punch mark is in the dough. This post reminds me (as if I knead it :) ) how cute you are. Thanks for the mid-day ear to ear grin. I love you


genkitummy said...

your bread looks wonderful! i'm glad you're going to buy the cookbook! i bet it tasted so much better because you made it by hand!

Ann said...

You are so on your way to becoming a regular bread baker! And isn't the yeasty smell fabulous?

Michelle said...

Hi Deb, you're hilarious! I might just do that next time...I'm not sure the taste was worth the kneading!!

Hi Christie, Aw, shucks, thanks! Yeah, that's why LB is the bread man (of any sort, pizza crust etc.) and I am not the bread woman!

Hi Tanna, Okay, just for YOU I will try baking it one more time to see if it is easier! I want so much to be a bread kneader and relax into it like you, but it's so much work!! I'll have to get me one of those counters like you have someday!!

Hi Cookie, Whew, yeah I had no idea how much work it was!! No hormonal state for me - double Eeps!! Maybe I can have some of the best of both worlds and sometimes make bread this way and then sometimes that way? I just want to have my bread and eat it too!

Hi Zoomie, why thank you! I'm not sure about that...I'm still recovering from the sweating... ;)

Hi Vickie! You just gave me an idea - I"ll bake bread next time I have a bad day...or a bad student!

Hi LB, you're lucky that YOU'RE cute!

Hi Genki, It did taste pretty good, I have to admit it was better than the no-work soda bread - less dense and more flavor!

Hi Ann, I hope so, someday! And yes, the yeast is definitely a sensory experience!!

Michelle said...

Tanna - PS. I've been trying to comment on your site since last Thursday but keep getting an error message...

Julie said...

You had me laughing out loud with this. Funny stuff. And good looking bread, too.

Nate-n-Annie said...

Great post. I love the picture of your fist impression in the dough.

and sorry to say I did picture you standing on a stool kneading your dough on the granite countertop. Too funny.

You got the bread baking blues.

Michelle said...

ha ha ha, you know the movie then?! now, stop picturing me doing that!