The groundhog saw his shadow. In Minnesota, we feel great about this. Six more weeks of winter suggests a limit to our torment, a blessedly quick ending to subzero temperatures and snow emergencies. Punxsatawney Phil didn’t see his shadow last year, and the rest of the country rejoiced. It snowed in Minneapolis on May 3rd. We need limits. They help us cope.
At our core we’re animals, and I think it’s important to take our survival cues from other mammals that exist at this latitude. In my observation, we have a few options. We can hibernate, as bears do; or we can get really furry and intensify our search for food, like wolves. Those of us who hibernate are given a diagnosis: Seasonal Affective Disorder. This year, I decided to opt for the other approach, so I’ve stopped shaving* and learned to bake bread.
When my friend Josh told me he’d been baking his family’s bread each morning, my initial response was to dismiss his superior domesticity as proof that his brain had frozen, a common seasonal tragedy that can only be cured by blankets or an impromptu drive to the Gulf Coast. It was easy, he swore, and it tasted really good, and it wasn’t full of preservatives. I envisioned hours spent kneading and punching and stuff, but Josh insisted that his technique was far simpler than that.
I ignored his recipe until we had this thing called a Polar Vortex. Stuck inside while the air temperature neared thirty below, I had nothing else to do.
I’ve baked bread every day since, and I’m convinced that Josh was on to something really amazing. There is no downside. If you brush the top of the crust with the most expensive thing possible–an organic, free-range, certified-humane egg–your total cost per loaf is around 45 cents. This recipe takes a couple of minutes to prepare two loaves, and 25-30 minutes to bake. The whole process is quicker than running to the market on a bread run. It makes your house smell delicious, and people will think that you’re a much better cook than you actually are. But that’s not what I love about it.
See, a few weeks ago, bread was this thing that came in a bag from the grocer. I’d buy a loaf, toss it in a drawer in my kitchen, and make sandwiches for my kids’ lunches each morning. It was to be consumed. It meant nothing.
Now it’s something bigger. Bread is something I do, a creative process that connects me to thousands upon thousands of years of human history. I have to imagine that fresh out of a wood-stove or off of an open fire, it provided the same comfort to my ancestors that it provides to me. It connects me to my family, who recognize a fresh loaf as an expression of love, and as a really-darn-tasty treat. Turns out, it actually un-froze my brain, made me a bit more conscious of the things I take for granted, and added a little bit of warmth to my winter. This year, we could use it.
Here’s what you need:
1 – 5 liter storage container that fits in your fridge. It’s best if it has a lid.
1 – regular sized bread pan
3 cups warm-but-not-hot water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons of your favorite salt (I like Morton’s Iodized Sea Salt)
6 cups all-purpose flour
Here’s what you do:
1. Put yeast in the bottom of your storage container. Add warm water. Mix gently, and add the sugar to wake the yeast-friends up. Let it sit for 5 minutes or so. If your yeast is fresh and has been properly stored, your mixture should smell a bit like beer and bubble just a bit.
2. Add salt to your mixture. This will slow, but not stop, the yeast reaction. This is good news.
3. Dump the flour in. Don’t bother doing it a cup at a time or mixing as you go. It doesn’t matter. Mix until it turns into thick, cement-like goo. it’s okay if it’s lumpy or not perfectly mixed, so long as everything is moist. Through the magic of chemistry, your mixture will become uniform on its own in a couple of hours.
4. Put the lid on your container, or cover it with plastic wrap. Put it in your fridge for a few hours. The cold environment will also slow, but not stop, the yeast reaction. While you’re waiting, your dough will roughly double in size, because chemistry is cool. Store in your fridge for a couple of weeks, if you want.
Here’s how to bake it:
1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Grease your bread pan with something that tastes really good to you. I use olive oil, but pretty much any fat is good. I’m interested in hearing what works for you.
3. Reach into your vat of dough, and grab about half from the container, and plop it in your bread pan.
4. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then raise temperature to 450 and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Bread is done
when internal temperature reaches 180 degrees.
5. Remove your bread from the pan within a few minutes. This will prevent the outside from getting tough.
A few tips:
1. If you want a really pretty shiny top crust, beat an egg in a bowl, and brush the egg over the top of the crust until it’s all lightly coated.
2. When you make more dough, make it right on top of the residual leftovers from your last batch–they have mature glutens and alcohols, and will make your next batch of bread all the more delicious. This mixture isn’t particularly perishable, so you only need to wash your container every couple of weeks.
3. Because you’re not using nasty preservatives, your baked bread will only stay fresh for a day or so. Put it in a gallon bag and store it in your fridge if it’s going to take you longer than a day to eat it. This stuff is amazing, however, and I’m willing to bet it will rarely last long enough to require storage.
4. If you make your first loaf right away, it will not be as good as it would be if you’d stored the dough in your fridge for a day or two first. Subsequent loaves will keep getting better, because of those delicious sugar alcohols and glutens mentioned in step 2.
5. You can plop smaller mounds of this dough onto a cookie sheet for rolls, and you can put a roll of it on a cookie sheet for a baguette-like thing. You’ll just have to experiment with baking times and temps.
*This might or might not be true. I’ll never tell.
**This bread is delicious and highly addictive. I cannot be held responsible for the moment when you wake at 3 AM in a cold sweat, desperate for more.