Plain-Old White Bread (with variations)

I adapted this recipe from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated American Cookbook but you can basically take any recipe for white bread and substitute water for the milk.  You end up with something closer to white bread from the store (without all the extra garbage).  This recipe makes 2 loaves.

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tablespoons sugar (any sugar will do as long as it IS sugar and not a sugar substitute)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 package dry active yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (you can substitute up to half the flour with any other kind of flour and still end up with a good tasting bread)
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 3 Tablespoons butter

Put the yeast into a bowl and mix in about 1/2 cup of the warm water (for specifics on temperature, go here http://www.cookistry.com/2011/01/technique-water-temperature-for-yeast.html. I turn on my hot water, which gets very hot, then turn it down just until I can stand it.).  I then place this on top (above the vent) of my still on drip coffee maker.  No matter what I’ve tried, this seems to get the yeast going faster than anything else I’ve tried.  If you don’t have a warm place like this, it just takes a little longer (maybe placing a towel over it to hold in the warmth will help it move along faster).  Leave it there until it is bubbling.  Now, before it actually ever really did anything I had no idea what people were talking about when they said to proof the yeast.

This is what I thought it was supposed to look like:

yeast

But this is what is is supposed to look like:

yeast2

This was my first breakthrough.  The second was the warm required for all processes of rising.

While the yeast is proofing, heat the rest of the water with the butter, just until the butter is melted (can be done in the microwave or on the stove top).

Mix 2 cups of flour with the salt, sugar, water/butter and yeast mixture.  Mix until there is no sign of flour or lumps (this was my second breakthrough and helps IMMENSELY when NOT using a Kitchen Aide mixer, since mine died about a year ago).  It’s almost like this gives you a head start on kneading the dough (which helps your hands, later on).  Continue mixing, adding one cup at a time until the dough no longer sticks to your finger when you touch it (if using a Kitchen Aide) or if mixing by hand, it’s much easier to incorporate the rest of the flour while kneading on a table or counter top.  If you haven’t done so already, generously flour your table or counter top with flour and turn out your dough.  I have always found it helpful to have a flat scraper (like this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BenchScraper.JPG) to scrape up any dough that sticks to your work surface so you don’t waste anything.

Now, about kneading your dough.  If you use a Kitchen Aide (or even a bread machine), you REALLY don’t have to worry about this.  The machine does it all for you.  All you need to do is just make sure there are no overly wet spots left.

If you are hand kneading (which I struggled with for years), there’s a bit of a technique to it so you don’t end up with a rock for a loaf of bread.  I used to manhandle it, squishing the hell out of it until there was pretty much no life left to it (it would be ugly and look torn by the time I was done).  I now only knead with one hand.  You place the dough on the table, sprinkle it with flour, then fold it in half toward me, then push down with the heel of my hand.  I then turn the dough counter clockwise (doesn’t matter which way but it’s just a quarter turn) and repeat until I’m done and the dough no longer sticks to my hands.  The only way I can describe how it feels when it done is to ask a question: When you were a kid, did you play with Play-Doh?  Remember how it felt when it was warm (just without the slightly greasy feeling)?  That’s how the dough should feel when you are done.  The closest video I could find it this one (wish I had a video camera) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmGawHsRAAk.  It IS more difficult to knead if you add other flours (whole wheat, spelt, etc.) so you will have to use a little more muscle.  Place in a large bowl that has been oiled (I put some oil on a paper towel and rub all but the upper edge of the bowl).  Cover with plastic wrap that has also been rubbed with oil (if the dough rises that high, it WILL stick to plastic wrap, which is quite annoying).  If you don’t have/use plastic wrap, you could cover with a damp towel.  The only problem I have with that is the towel gets cold, which makes the dough take longer to rise.

Now, find the warmest spot in your house to let the dough rise.  This has to be figured out ahead of time so you can prepare the area.  If it’s the dead of winter, who wants to spend all that money cranking up the heat in your house so you can “save money” by making your own bread?  What kind of a heater do you have?  Is there a spot where it enters your house that is warmer than others?  What about where your hot water heater is?  Is it in an enclosed closet?  If you use a wood stove, figure out how close you can get the dough without actually cooking it (it may take some trial and error but it will be well worth it).  If none of those work, how about where you have your electronics?  Behind your refrigerator?  Cover with a whole bunch of blankets just to keep the dough’s warmth in?  OH!  A sub-zero sleeping bag would work!  You just need to keep your dough draft and dust free.

Once it it doubled in size (if you don’t remember, make some indentations in the dough with your fingers.  If they do not spring back, your dough is ready), turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead it just a few times.  Form it into a ball and cut it into two equal pieces.  Set one aside and roll one piece into a rectangle about 12″ by 8″ (or as wide as your dough pan).  If you want to play with your bread, now is the time to do it and it’s all by your tastes and what you prefer:

  • For cinnamon bread, sprinkle (leaving about 1/2″ of the edges free) with brown sugar and cinnamon (for us, I use so much of these two ingredients I can’t see any dough but the edges).  If you want nuts and/or raisins, sprinkle those on.
  • For jalapeno cheese bread, sprinkle grated sharp cheddar and jalapenos on the dough (not too much cheese, though.  This is one of the few times when too much cheese makes something taste nasty).
  • For garlic bread, sprinkle with some minced garlic and grated Parmesan cheese … I think butter would keep the loaf in separate layers, so save that for the top of the loaf when it’s done baking.

Anyway, you get the picture.  You can pretty much do whatever you want so you don’t end up with plain white bread for the rest of your life.  🙂  Now, starting with the short side, roll the dough up (imagine making cinnamon rolls) tight.  Pinch the seam together along the bottom of the roll.  Pinch the ends of the roll together and tuck them under (toward the seam) then place this into the loaf pan.  Repeat for the other half of the dough.  Cover your dough with oiled plastic wrap (treat it the same as the dough in the bowl) and let rise until doubled (about an hour).

When your dough is almost done rising, heat your oven to 400 degrees F.  If you want, brush your risen dough with butter (I usually do this just after pulling the bread out of the oven).  Bake 25 to 30 minutes (the bread will be golden brown and sound hollow when you lightly tap it with something hard, like your knuckle or a spoon).  Let cool just a bit on a raised surface (cooling rack or trivet) then turn the bread out onto a rack and let it cool completely (hard to do the first few times but it’s well worth the wait).

If any of this is unclear, let me know.  I’m typing this as I remember doing it (it’s been a couple of months since I’ve made bread).

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