I read the following phrase online somewhere a few months back: "First and foremost, bread is alive." Then, after sharing with a friend that I thought I'd try my hand at breadmaking, he simply said, "Bread is magic." Huh. You don't usually hear people saying a quarter-pounder with cheese is magic, do you?
I guess there must be something about taking the most basic of ingredients—flour, salt, yeast, water—and making a food that is hearty, earthy, universal, and substantial. I had to give it a go. And now that I've taken my first step into this magical world, I completely understand the sentiments. As I sit here eating my first slice of homemade bread, I've never felt so satisfied—and blown away—after 5 hours in the kitchen.
I'm not afraid to admit it—I was nervous. What if I worked the dough too much (I've heard bad things about that) or what if the dough was too sticky and unworkable, or didn't release from the sides of the bowl like the recipe said it would, or what if I cooked it too long or not enough or it tasted funny. But I dove in anyway, despite my feelings of inadequacy.
My fears were fueled by all those scary terms and instructions used in bread recipes..."punching down the dough" (how hard do I punch, and is it one punch or three?), "water shouldn't be more than 130 degrees or you'll KILL the yeast" (I don't want to kill anything, I just want to bake bread), and "knead the dough for no more than 8 minutes" (really? 9 minutes or 7 minutes would mean a complete fail?)
Every step along the way, though, I felt more and more confident. As I completed each task, the dough did what it was supposed to do: it came away from the sides of the bowl, it rose, it worked it's way into nice loaves with my gentle prodding, it rose again, it didn't stick to the board, it moved over to the cookie sheet without falling onto the floor, it browned in the oven, and it smelled truly AMAZING while it cooked. I was feeling the magic—I followed directions and the bread appeared before my eyes. Magic.
Did I mention that this little adventure involved two different recipes prepared simultaneously? Why make things easy, right? The first (pictured above) was an Italian bread recipe found and tried by my baking fanatic friend (she may be the only person on earth that will actually kill her breadmaker from overuse). She found it at AllRecipes.com and it did involve the use of a MY Breadmaker Ultimate—a wedding present that has spent most of it's lifetime in our garage. All of the ingredients went into the breadmaker for 1:30, and then onto a surface covered in cornmeal to rise again. The two loaves look beautiful and golden, and taste so, so good. Paninis, anyone?
The second recipe I got from a co-worker's mother—appropriate, right? It's called Kefir (or Buttermilk). Sorry, can't share the recipe—wouldn't want to piss off a mother I've never met! This one was truly from scratch with the help of Mr. KitchenAid, my fancy new electronic thermometer that I got for Christmas but hadn't yet used, and the timer on my oven, since there were so many timed instructions (mix for 2 minutes, add more flour, mix for 2 minutes more, then the 8 minute kneading time thing...all of which I timed to the second. Nerd.)
These loaves browned up even nicer than the first and the sesame seeds made them look that much more professional. I would say that the non-breadmaker dough was actually easier to work with—not quite as fluffy and flimsy as the first, more dense and firm, and the flavor is slightly sweeter, buttery, and equally as delicious.
Most importantly, more than the end result or the flavor or the successes along the way, I feel a bit transformed, elevated, inspired. I feel like I want to bake bread all the time, because now I know I can. There is so much more bread to come in the future...such as my grandmother's homemade rolls that have always seemed elusive, unforgiving, and never as good as when she used to make them. Ah, another challenge...