Thursday, December 9, 2010

Flour, Water, Salt, and Yeast

I love bread, simply love it. I never understood those low carb diets, and in my opinion, a life without fresh, hot bread, is a sad life indeed. Bread is such a simple pleasure too- flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast combine to make something beautiful. But good, fresh baked bread is not cheap, especially not in the quantities we consume it.

I think learning to bake is a wonderful life lesson, and it's one I've been learning along with my kids. I first tried making bread from scratch during my Ma Ingalls phase. My own mother, a woman who I do not believe has turned on an oven in 15 years or more, gave me a cool old cook book of breads. While I cannot imagine her baking at all- she's been more of a microwave kind of gal as far as I remember in my lifetime- she says she at one time did bake things.

Sunbeam 5891 2-Pound Programmable BreadmakerWe all found that kneading dough is fun for little ones and and beating and punching it can be semi therapeutic, but it's also a pretty big production. I don't often feel like taking the time, or dealing with the mess these days. My plate is just too full. So, I was sticking to "quick breads" without yeast.

Then, my sweet family got me a bread maker a while ago. It is really easy, but I just never got into the way the loaves bake in those things. It just doesn't taste or look quite right in the end. Finally, one of my genius friends turned me on to a fabulous idea. Use the bread maker to do the kneading (on the dough only cycle) and then shape it by hand and bake it in the oven. Now, we're cooking! We all LOVE the simplicity and the results- it's like magic.

We make braids and wreaths and occasionally plain loafs. They look beautiful enough for gift giving, and are so easy and affordable. My kids can almost do the whole thing from start to finish on their own, which is a pretty empowering thing for a kid, I think.

Of course, I can't help myself, I'm a homeschooling mom, I went on to find these lessons on the science of bread making. The fact that yeast is actually a fungus could almost put a damper on my enjoyment of hot fluffy bread, but I am trying to categorize that info into one of those parts of my mind that holds knowledge I don't want to think about, lest it spoil my meal. There's a fun experiment with yeast, a gluten animation and links to lots of bread science and bread history, so it's not just yummy and fun, you can actually call it homeschooling. Today, the kids are learning about gluten allergy, as one of their aunts has a severe one which limits her diet extremely. We're also giving thanks that we are able to eat bread, cake, cereal and all those other tasty things.

We've already learned that baking bread is as much a science as it is an art. With most of our cooking, we don't typically follow recipes exactly- we improvise and wing it. Sometimes, I want to make something healthier- using applesauce instead of oil in cakes for example or cutting the sugar in half- and sometimes I just don't have the right ingredients and the store is too far away to reasonably justify making a trip for one thing. I experiment a lot in the kitchen, and for the most part, it works out pretty well. With bread making, it seems the ratios of yeast, salt and sugar are not as open to messing with, or the results are dense, flat, or oddly textured. Luckily, we have chickens who are happy to help us with our extreme kitchen errors, so it's not a total waste. For the most part, we do make everything with at least half whole wheat flour, no matter what kind of flour the recipe calls for, and while it's probably heartier than it might be with refined flour, it's usually still really good, and no one complains.

We'll probably be baking even more as the holidays get nearer, and some gifts will probably come out of our oven this year too. Cinnamon rolls are next on our list of things to try. Do you have any wonderful bread recipes you'd like to share? What are you baking this winter?