One of my traditions at Thanksgiving time is to bake a family recipe for dinner rolls. However it has been years since I have baked a loaf of bread, and I have recently been inspired by reading "Im Just Here For More Food", by Alton Brown. Alton's new book is all about baking, and he uses an interesting approach whereby he categorizes types of baking by the method in which ingredients are mixed together. Once one understands these few basic mixing methods and how to handle them properly, one can greatly increase the odds of creating a successful product, whether it be through employing the creaming method, the biscuit method, the straight dough method, etc.
But first, Alton impresses upon the reader the importance of using a scale to weigh ingredients, as opposed to the American custom of measuring ingredients by volume (seven cups of flour, a cup of water, etc.) I learned that weighing baking ingredients is the standard practice not only in professional baking, but in most other countries. This is because a cup of flour can vary tremendously in weight and true total volume from cup to cup, depending on how compact it is. Sifting alone will not create a uniform measure, and these variations in liquid to dry ingredients can wreak havoc with the best recipe. In the end, Alton convinced me, so I went out and purchased a digital food scale that will measure the weight by ounces or grams, fluid ir dry, as one selects. It also has a tare function, so that I can place a bowl on the scale and set it to zero before adding and weighing the contents. This took some getting used to, and I made a few mistakes in adding ingredients consecutively in another project that same day.
Once my ingredients were mixed, I again took Alton's advice and went for a long, slow, cold rise in the refrigerator all night. This creates a sponge which adds a great deal of flavor to the final result.
The next morning I kneaded the dough by hand, since I do not own a mixer with a dough attachment.
Let it be said that I sincerely enjoy kneading bread. I enjoy the physical rhythm of it, and getting a good feel of what is happening with the dough as it developes the proper stretchy and springy texture. This is the physical action that helps gluten formation and the distribution of yeast throughout the loaf, giving it better flavor and texture.
But let it also be said that kneading dough long and vigorously enough to create a truly well developed doough is hard work. I went at it for a good half hour, and applied the "windowpane" test, wherein I stretched a small portion of dough between my fingers to see if I could form a membrane, thin and similar to bubble-gum.
I finally determined that I was close enough, and let the dough rest and rise for its final bench proof.
I slashed the top of the raw dough, (Alton says it gives it room to expand while baking), and I also tried Alton's recommendations for placing a pan of water in the oven (for humidity), as well as a clean, upended and unglazed terra cotta planter plate as a baking stone for the loaf itself.
The results were spectacular, ladies and gentlemen.
The bread crumb was even, dense but not too chewy, and the flavor was delicious. I used organic white unbleached flour this time, but a bag of whole wheat is waiting in the pantry.
I pored over Alton's book, took his advice about yeast, equipment, ingredients and method, and came up with the best loaf of bread I have ever made. And although each future loaf will receive personal attention and kneading, I am looking seriously into buying a new stand mixer that can improve my efficiency and baking frequency.
I look forward to experimenting with starters and sourdoughs next.