Like those of you who knit or garden, I bake bread not for the result but for the process.
From the second I stick my hands into a bag of cool flour and lightly dust the countertop to that grand finale of pulling out honey-colored loaves, I'm at ease. The warm, musty smell of yeast coming alive in lukewarm water. The taste of sticky dough eaten right off my fingers. Kneading is my favorite part. Folding the dough onto itself, I coax the gluten fibers into relaxing and elongating, like a yoga teacher easing her students' clenched bodies.
Making bread is cheaper than getting a massage or even taking a meditation class, but for me the results are the same: a calmer, more focused version of me, one who isn't running from appointment to appointment and thinking in 140-character tweets.
One of my favorite recipes comes from MFK Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf," which came out in 1942 and chronicles life in the kitchen during wartime. How to bake a cake with no sugar, how to use every scrap of food you can find or grow and, in my favorite chapter, why baking bread is akin to going to church.
"(Making bread) is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony," she writes. "It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world's sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread."
Several no-knead bread books have come out in recent years, but I haven't bothered to try them. I'm sure they are fine cookbooks, but I want recipes like Jeff Basom's Homemade Whole Grain Bread, whose process does not require as many baking skills as time to allow the dough to ferment and rise. The rhythm of baking bread forces me to slow down, to think about how my great-great-grandmothers in Sweden made bread every day not because it was meditative, but because you couldn't buy good bread that didn't come in a plastic bag tied with a plastic-coated wire.
Nowadays, I can buy perfectly good, healthful bread at the grocery store, but this time of year, just before the holidays when the to-do lists get longer as fast as the days get shorter, baking helps fill the countless hours of darkness that greet me when I come home from work. It takes a fair amount of time but only a few ingredients, the most important of which is yeast, which gives life to flour and, in turn, me.
One recipe I enjoy from Fisher's book is Addie's Quick Bucket Bread, which can be made in a bucket but isn't exactly quick. Instead of using a flower pot, as does Fisher's friend with whom I share a name, I used a Dutch oven, which has become my secret weapon when baking bread. The lid traps moisture and helps develop a crispy crust. (Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman outlines the technique in his newest book "Ratio." He suggests preheating the Dutch oven while letting the dough rise for the final time. Oil the bottom of the Dutch oven, place the dough inside and bake, with the lid on, for 30 minutes, which allows the dough to puff up without forming a crust first. Then remove the lid for the final 15 to 30 minutes so the crust can form.)
Fisher's recipe is so vague, it assumes you've made bread before. As with most baked goods, baking bread takes practice. It's hard to teach someone how to knead bread because it's done by feel. The amount of time it takes for dough to rise will vary from day to day, depending on the temperature, humidity and freshness of the yeast and flour.
But don't let the science and exactitude of baking bread keep you from doing it. Like Fisher says, bread making is about the peace you find while alone in the kitchen, not the loaf you pull out at the end.
And for the next few months, as it gets colder and life more hectic, I could use a little peace.
Addie's Quick Bucket-Bread
This recipe makes several large loaves, so I suggest cutting in half.
1 cake fresh yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast)
1 cup lukewarm water
3 Tbsp. shortening
1 quart (4 cups) whole rich milk
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sugar
10 to 12 cups all-purpose flour
Dissolve yeast in water. Slightly heat milk on the stove, but do not let boil. Melt shortening in milk. Combine the two liquid mixtures in a big bowl. In another large bowl whisk salt, sugar and flour. Pour the liquid gradually into the flour, mixing well, and when too thick to stir, knead on a floured surface until smooth. In a very large bowl that has been greased with oil, cover dough with a clean napkin or towel and let rise in a warm place until double in size. Knead lightly and let rise once more (about 31/2 hours altogether). Make into loaves and put into well-greased pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Brush butter on the tops once they start to brown and again when the loaves are removed from their pans.
— Adapted from 'How to Cook a Wolf,' by MFK Fisher
2 packages yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
4 large eggs, beaten and divided
2 Tbsp. honey
1/4 cup soft butter
1 Tbsp. salt
6-8 cups unbleached white flour, divided
Dissolve yeast in water and let stand for five minutes. Set aside 3 Tbsp. of the beaten egg and put in the refrigerator. To the yeast mixture, add honey, butter, remaining eggs, salt and 2 cups of flour and mix with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the rest of the flour, and after the dough is too thick to stir, transfer to a floured surface and knead for 15 to 20 minutes. Once the dough has the texture of an earlobe and is smooth, uniform and not sticky, place in a large bowl that has been sprayed with oil or rubbed with butter. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled. Punch down dough and return to the floured surface. Knead for five minutes and divide into thirds. Knead each third for five to 10 minutes, gradually forming into 1 1/2-inch diameter logs.
Line up the three logs of dough and let rest for 10 minutes. Braid the pieces of dough together, pressing the ends together and sealing with a little water.
Put the braided challah on a large tray and let rise until doubled. Just before baking, brush with reserved egg mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Note: This recipe can be used to make two smaller loaves. Just divide dough into six logs and braid into two loaves.
— Adapted from 'The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,' by Mollie Katzen (Ten Speed Press)
Homemade Whole Grain Bread
This bread freezes well and even though it requires the extra step of cooking, blending and fermenting grains, the resulting texture makes it worth the effort. Plus, you can make it with quinoa and add protein to what is usually just a carbohydrate-filled loaf.
2 cups cooked rice or other whole grain such as quinoa, millet or barley
2 cups water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. sea salt
1 Tbsp. dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sweetener, such as barley malt, rice syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, honey or molasses
2 cups whole wheat flour
3-4 cups unbleached white flour or whole wheat flour
To brush on risen dough before baking:
1 tsp. water
1 tsp. barley malt, maple syrup, honey or agave nectar
1 tsp. oil
1/4 tsp. sea salt
For the starter dough: In a blender or food processor or with a hand immersion blender, combine grains and water until creamy; pour into a large mixing bowl. Mix in oil, salt and yeast. Add enough flour to make the mixture look like thick cooked cereal. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and leave for 12-24 hours at room temperature. Once the dough is fermented, it can be refrigerated for up to a week before using to make bread.
For the bread: After the 12-24 hours, add sweetener to starter dough and stir. One cup at a time, stir in whole wheat flour. Continue adding next round of flour, and as the mixture gets thick, knead by hand in the bowl and continue adding flour. As the dough becomes less sticky, transfer to a floured surface and knead 10-15 minutes or until dough is soft and springy, but not too sticky. Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
After the dough has risen, punch down and divide in two. Knead for a few minutes on a floured surface. (This is where you can add garlic, rosemary or any other spices or herbs.) Shape dough into a loaf and put into a lightly oiled loaf pan. Repeat with the other dough.
Just before baking: Mix water, syrup, oil and salt in a small cup or bowl and coat the top of each loaf with this mixture. (For a crisper crust, add an egg to this mixture.)
Cover and let rise in pans for 45-60 minutes until the loaves have doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake 45-50 minutes and remove from oven. Let cool in pans for five minutes, then remove from pans and let cool another 30 minutes before slicing.
— Adapted from a recipe by Jeff Basom and printed in 'Feeding the Whole Family' by Cynthia Lair