Thursday, November 02, 2006

All about bread...

Today I want to talk about bread. Yes, bread. The absolutely easiest thing you could ever cook that should be the first thing anyone ever cooks, cause it is really hard to screw up. Wah? Did I shock you? Did you think that only fancy bakeries can make bread, or bread machines, or some really specialized cookbooks with detailed instructions for real experts and so on?

Yah, that’s what I thought too…

And then I read a book. Unfortunately it’s in Russian, so there is no point checking the link as I’m sure most of you might as well have it in gibberish. But I’ll give you the gist of it.

It is a book that is meant to be a “learn to cook book”. As in, learn to cook in general, and not just from recipes. Cause let’s face it, recipes are nice… When you have them… And when you have the matching ingredients. But sometimes you are just stuck with whatever you have in your fridge/pantry, a hungry family and absolutely no way/time/money to get to the grocery store. And then you have to improvise. And for that you need to know the basics, the principles. Like, that you need to boil water first, before you throw in the pasta. Or that you need to preheat the oil, before you try to fry anything. Or that you need to mix corn starch in COLD water before you add it to a stir fry (thank God my dad taught me that, cause until then… ouch…) Anyways, you get the point…

So this book is full of tips/tricks of this sort. But the most novel concept (to me, at least) is that the author’s premise is that baking bread is the easiest cooking thing to learn.

So being the preppy perfectionist that I am, and wanting to learn to cook properly I decided to give it a try. Given how easy it is…

Except, as soon as I started doing it, I ran into problems. First, the author gives quantities for fresh yeast… Where the heck do you get that? I only have dry… But I didn’t give up, and after a very productive internet research session I found reasonable conversion guidelines. Then he said to put as much flour as you need until it stops getting stuck to your hands… I must have missed the moment. It didn’t stick to me at all. And barely to itself…

So my final recipe looked something like this: 4 and ¾ teaspoons of dry active yeast, ½ cup of water, ½ cup of milk (he said milk or water, milk was closer…), 1/3 cup of oil, pinch of salt, pinch of sugar, about 3 cups of flour… (I was supposed to put in some onion too, but I didn’t feel like it…)

Mix yeast with ½ cup of WARM water, add pinch of sugar, and let it sit for about 10 minutes. (It will foam if your yeast is good…) Then add all the other liquids and salt, and mix. Then add the flour and knead. Basically add two cups, and then knead and keep adding flour till it stops sticking to your hands. Like I said, in my case it ended up being 3 cups.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Shape the dough into apple-sized balls, then squash them, and put them on the cooking sheet. With a knife cut a few lines on the flattened patties (make them stripy!). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes (the book says 3 minutes, but I beg to differ) and then put in the oven. Bake 10-15 minutes (test readiness with a tooth pic – if there is dough on it when you pull it out, not ready yet). Take out. Wait about half an hour before eating.

Here is what I got.



It actually looks and tastes like a bun (albeit a scary looking one).



And honestly, the “making” process did take just a few minutes. And the waiting in between was used for very productive toddler chasing…

My personal observations for next time: I’ll substitute some of the milk with water. I’ll add a bit more salt. I might throw in some spices, like cumin seeds. I’ll take less yeast, probably just four teaspoons, cause it’s a bit too yeasty for my taste. I’ll experiment with different flours (whole grain, rye, etc…) And if I have time, I’ll let the dough rise first, before shaping it into balls… (So, add about 40 min to an hour of rising time.)

As for the “no recipe part” of bread baking, apparently (according to the book, not me), there are 5 cardinal rules of making bread, that once you learn them, and stick to them, you can improvise the rest to your heart’s content:

1. For one kilo of flour and additives (let’s say you added some chopped onions, raisins etc…), you need to use no less than 35g and no more than 50g of fresh yeast. I.e., 40% of that if you use dry yeast. My jar claims that 2 and a half teaspoons are equal to 8g. (And reading this now, I definitely think I overdid the yeast part.) Anyways, you do the math… I’m feeling lazy. But obviously, you can see that you don’t have to be overly precise. This is not an alchemical solution… And I’m sure the guidelines on your dry yeast package are just as useful as this rule…

2. The liquids have to consist of at least ½ cup of water (for the yeast, and make that WARM water). The rest can be milk, sour cream, kefir, you name it… Hmm… I wonder if juice would work?

3. Fat – you can use absolutely any fat, animal or vegetable. So that can be oil (vegetable, sunflower, olive, canola, etc…), melted butter or margarine, etc… (if it starts out solid, melt it first.) They all can be intermixed in any proportions.

4. First you always mix the yeast (already foamed and activated if using dry…) and all liquids and additives (spices, herbs, salt, etc…). Then you add the flour, as you knead, to a point where it stops sticking to your hands, but is still elastic… The amount will apparently vary based on types of liquids and fats you use.

5. Proportions to stick to:
All dry (non-dissolvable) additives, such as onion, cheese, spices., etc should not exceed in volume a quarter of liquids. I.e. for each 2 cups of water/milk do not have more than half a cup of dry experimental flavour thingies, like fruits and vegetables or something…
Fats should not exceed half of liquids. I.e. no more than half a cup of fats per 1 cup of water/milk…
If you choose to use milk, make sure it’s no more than the amount of water you use…

There, don’t you feel all smarter now? (I don’t… But I do feel braver… And now if there is no sandwich bread and no chance to get to a store, I’ll be experimenting with my floury left-overs…)

And as for general cooking without a recipe… Today I was precisely in that situation. As it is a vegetarian day, and I was insanely hungry, and the toddler fell asleep so shopping was out of the question, not to mention that hubs forgot to transfer the car seat to my car -- I had to improvise with ingredients at hand…

So I fried an onion, some garlic and a tiny piece of ginger. Blended it with two tomatoes, some cilantro, and half a celery stick, and poured it all over the veggies (pealed, chopped, and slightly pre-fried). The veggies happened to be 4 small potatoes, 2 carrots, 3 zucchinis, and one green bell pepper. Plus a tablespoon of curry powder, salt, pepper, a table spoon of tomato paste, and just a bit of water for the sauce. Cooked for 15 minutes, then added a can of red beans (washed – I hate the beans liquid that they float in…). Simmered 5 more minutes and served over rice.



Not overly creative, but eatable…

And this entry is so long now, I better sign off… Before it turns into a novel…

Posted by vasilisa @ 11:51 PM

Read or Post a Comment

Until now, making bread was a mystery. Thanks for the info. One day if I have more time, I may even try some.

I had a neighbor who used to bake bread and the smell was to die for. Just thinking about it makes me tingly.

Posted by Blogger Alexys Fairfield @ 3:02 AM #
 

You're an inspiration to me to get back to cooking more and eating less take-out! As for bread, when I was a teen, we learned how to make bread in "home ec" (I'm sure they don't call it that anymore). I wanted to try it at home and my other said I wouldn't be able to, it's too hard (always the pessimist). But I did it anyway and it turned out I was really good at making bread!

I'm going to buy some yeast and let R. help me get back to that -- it's especially fun to punch down the dough after it rises!

Posted by Blogger PunditMom @ 9:27 AM #
 

There really is something about bread that mystifies. I made pizza dough from scratch recently, and I fancied myself a genius when it actually worked.

I really, really want one of those bread machines. You know, the kind that you just toss all of the ingredients into and a few hours later, wah-lah! fresh bread. That is more my speed.

Posted by Blogger Kelley @ 10:44 AM #
 

My "homemade bread from scratch" is what comes from my bread machine.

I'd love to find the English equivalent to the book you're describing. I'm good with a recipe, but when it comes to improvising, I'm in trouble.

Posted by Anonymous Leslie @ 11:30 AM #
 
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About

I'm a 29 year old mom of two! A toddler (kiddo one) and a new baby (kiddo junior). I am also the most horrible (as in I barely ever do it) cook that I have met in my life. This blog is a diary of my attempts to feed my hungry growing family

PS: My name is not actually Vasilisa... But I find that honest reporting comes easier when there is a shred of anonymity. (Apparently, posting pics of my sons doesn't count...)

PPS: For those of you wondering where on the planet I am: I'm cosily tacked away in the Torontonian suburbia of the Great White North (Canada).

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