Ordinarily, I write these thoughts a month or so ahead of the date they are posted. I am scrapping the thoughts I had already written for this month because they really do not address the issues we are now facing. All of which just goes to prove what a difference a month makes.
By now, we have had to develop strategies to deal with our confined status. Jayme and I play Gin Rummy (she sometimes lets me win), we read, we walk with Timmy (the dog), and I bake bread. I have baked bread for many years, and always enjoyed it. You never know quite how the bread will turn out since that depends on atmospheric conditions, the elevation above sea level of your kitchen, and whether you slept well the night before.
My “Bible” for making bread is “Beard on Bread”. First published in 1973, there is a good paperback version out now, and, if you want to try your hand, this is the bread-making book that caters to both beginners and sophisticated bakers. I consider myself a klutz (translations for my pieces are always available) in the cooking/baking department, and if I can bake it, anyone can.
My favorite is Portuguese Sweet Bread (page 138 in the paperback). This is not only easy but also delicious when warm. In fact, it is so good, that you do not have to worry about leftovers because, if you have butter in the house, there will not be any.
The trick is to get things ready beforehand. You will need a big bowl, a large board, and a cup and spoon measurer. Wear a short sleeve shirt…you are going to get your hands and wrists messy. Then get all the ingredients ready. To save buying the book, I will list them:
2 Packages of active dry yeast
I cup plus I teaspoon of granulated sugar
½ a cup of lukewarm water
I stick (or half a cup) of softened butter
½ a cup of warmed milk
4 eggs lightly beaten
1 tablespoon of salt
4 to 4 and a 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour.
Anyway that is what “the Man” says. I use a little more flour than he does.
So first you have to “proof” the yeast. This means that you just want to make sure that the yeast is going to work. Put it in the large bowl that is going to be the bowl where everything is going to finish up, and add the ½ cup of warm water and a teaspoon of sugar. When there are a number of bubbles on the surface, your yeast is “proofed” and you are good to go.
Next comes the warm butter (the microwave speeds this up) which is added to the warm milk (once again the microwave!) and the cup of sugar, and stir or whisk well. This solution is poured into the large bowl with the yeast and its water and sugar. All in! And stir away (or whisk away) so that the butter melts into the whole fluid and you do not have bits of solid butter floating around. Now take three eggs and lightly beat them (again, a whisk is handy), and add those beaten eggs into the big bowl. Mix that whole mess up really well. Now add three cups of flour, but only add one cup of the three at a time, while stirring. By the third cup, as the bowl mixture gets gooey, the fun part starts. You put your hands in and start kneading the mess. Kneading is just a fancy way of saying that you squish the whole thing together and flatten it out, and squish it again and flatten. And again. You cannot squish too much. After you have added that third cup, the gooey mess will start to become less gooey and more like dough. Squish and flatten away! Then, pour all that out on the big board on which you have put a half a cup of flour and keep on squishing (kneading). Fold together, flatten, together, flatten. The gooey dough will stick to the board and so here is where I put a little more flour down than Mr. Beard. I sprinkle the board with flour so that the gooey mess becomes less gooey and more like semi-soft plasticine. Eventually, after all this fun, you will be able to make it into a ball. How quickly that happens depends on all the factors listed in the beginning, including how well you slept, but it takes at least 10 minutes and usually longer.
When you can scoop everything up, and your hands will still be messy, you shape the dough into a big ball and put it in a covered bowl. What I do is wash the first big bowl while the dough is on the board, and use the same bowl for the rising, which is this next step. Butter this big bowl well, and the put the ball of dough into it. You should turn it and brush warm butter onto the ball’s surface. Now cover the bowl with plastic wrap (although, at a pinch, a kitchen cloth would do), and place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place to rise. Many people use a slightly preheated oven but you are not cooking so the bowl should not get hot. Any really warm sunny place will do. Leave it for at least an hour and a half until it has doubled in size. Until it has risen!
Once risen, you take the bowl and literally punch the dough as though you were punching a bag. Smash! Then divide the dough into two roughly equal parts and put them into two buttered skillets (frying pans). The Teflon ones do well here but make sure they do not have plastic handles because they are going into the oven. Small ones, of about 9 inches diameter, Beard considers the best. But who has two identical sized frying pans? Just make do with what you have (which is the very essence of baking bread). Cover again loosely (that Saran wrap really is useful) and once again let them rise until double in size.
Now brush the tops with the remaining egg (which is first beaten) and put in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. It may take a bit longer because you are looking for a lovely brown even color. The bread should sound hollow when tapped at the bottom. Now place the hot round loaves on racks to cool. I have improvised successfully on “racks” which can really mean anything that gets air to both bottom and top.
While still warm, cut the Portuguese sweetbread, and smother with butter (and jam, if you wish). Enjoy!
If this works, then you could have your children make it again or try another simple recipe in Beard’s book. Baking involves a lot of messy hands and a wonderful product at the end. Something for everyone (including young children with supervision) to do while stuck in the house, so long as the same people who bake clean up after themselves.
I would love to hear from any of our community about their favorite things to cook or bake. A York Prep Cook Book would be a pleasure to be able to send to all of our families. Something that is easy enough for a non-cook like me, with commonly obtainable ingredients that are already in most people’s kitchens. Let us get our children involved in cooking. It will give them an appreciation that food does not magically arrive without someone’s efforts, and a future mate will surely find the ability to cook or bake an attractive feature. Everyone loves a home-cooked meal, and I particularly enjoy home-baked bread.
I send you my sincerest best wishes at this difficult time.
Ronald P. Stewart