There is absolutely nothing better than freshly baked bread. The smell as its baking, the steam that comes out when you tear open a bun that’s just come out of the over, the way the butter melts from the warmth, I could go on and on. Despite all of this, I don’t make bread too often. It seems to me that bread is something you have to commit to. You can’t just decide to make it on a whim and whip it up in half an hour. Bread takes time, and there is some ritual involved.
I spent my summers in high school and university working at a living history museum set in 1914. I wore a costume and taught school programs, and “animated” the village. Basically, my job when I wasn’t teaching, was to make the buildings I worked in look lived in to the public. I spent a lot of my time in an Old Order Mennonite farmhouse. I attribute most of my baking skills to my time spent in the Peter Martin House. I think my idea of bread being a ritual comes from this period of my life too. We would open up the house in the morning and get the wood stove lit. In 30 degree July heat with humidex warnings, I’d be lighting a wood stove, but it was all part of the commitment to the bread. At the end of a long, hot day, we’d be rewarded with hot, fresh, delicious bread.
Because I learned to bake bread this way, the thought of using a bread machine is absolutely ludicrous to me. Obviously, when I bake bread at home now, I’m not throwing it into my gas fireplace to bake (sadly, no wood stove in my house), I use my fancy Kitchenaid oven that even has a bread proofing setting. When my appliances got delivered a year ago and I saw that setting which I didn’t notice when we made the purchase, I was literally jumping for joy (you know you’re a grown up when new appliances are the most exciting thing in the world), I thought I’d be making fresh bread everyday. Like I said earlier, bread is a commitment, and it takes time, and let’s be real, I just usually don’t have the time.
Now that I’m on maternity leave, I have a lot more time. Sure I have a newborn who wants to be fed every 90 minutes, and a 3-year-old who wants my undivided attention at all times, but still there is more time. Now when I really think about it, bread isn’t actually a whole day affair. On Monday afternoon Scarlett and I made it start to finish in just under 3 hours. We made buns, so I’d add about another hour if we were making loaves, just because they need a bit more time to rise.
The first part of making bread is my favourite part, activating the yeast. Growing up, I was never exposed to baking things with yeast because my mom, in her words, was scared of it. I think she just felt like using yeast was a big undertaking. To activate yeast, you mix it with some warm water (to wake it up) and some sugar (to feed it), and let it sit for about 10 minutes. This is where the magic happens, you are literally unleashing microorganisms that are going to work for you to make delicious, soft, fluffy bread. The yeast wake up and start buzzing around, and since they had a good meal of sugar, they start releasing gases. These gases are what is going to help your bread rise. Don’t worry though, these microorganisms die off when you’re baking the bread, but they had a good life that was sacrificed for the cause!
On Monday when I decided that fresh buns would compliment our dinner nicely, our afternoon got away from us a little bit and I was feeling pressed for time. I set Scarlett up on the iPad and got down to work. It never fails, as soon as she sees me pulling out baking supplies, “Mommy, what are you doing? I wanna help!” I tried to brush it off as nothing, because again, I knew if she helped, it would take longer, but she’s WAY too smart for my trickery and so my kitchen sidekick was ready to make bread.
After the yeast was activated, it was time for us to add the rest of the ingredients and mix up our dough. Because of my helper, we had flour everywhere and stuff flying in all directions while the dough was being mixed, but the kitchen was filled with the beautiful sound of toddler giggles.
I took over at this point because you have to get your hands right in there and knead the dough for about 10 minutes to make sure everything is all mixed up. I promised Scarlett that she could do this in a little bit because we had to do it two times. I love kneading dough. It’s hard work, and you can really work up a sweat. You have to put your whole body into it, and the more you knead, the stiffer it gets. If you’ve had a bad day or you’re feeling stressed, you can really work out your feeling as you knead the dough, beats therapy! After my kneading workout, I gathered the dough into a nice small ball and put it back in the bowl which I covered with a tea towel and popped into the oven. If your oven doesn’t have a bread proofing setting, just set the bowl on the stove near where the steam/heat from the oven vents out (it just needs a warm spot to rise).
After about an hour of rising, your dough should have doubled in size and feel light and puffy (mine didn’t quite double, but I didn’t give it a full hour, maybe about 45 minutes).
I called my helper back into the kitchen for kneading round two. For this round of kneading, you alternate between punching and kneading. Turn your dough out onto a lightly floured surface and get punching. Scarlett loved this part, the giggles and squeals of delight once again filling the kitchen.
After this, shape your dough into 2 loaves or many buns. We opted for buns. I take two 8×8 cake pans and put 9 dough balls into each pan.
Scarlett helped with this, so the dough balls aren’t as uniform as I would’ve liked them to be. Cover your pans and let the dough rise again for about 30 minutes. After they have risen, remove the dishcloth and pop them into the oven at 400 degrees to bake until golden brown (usually takes about 20 or so minutes for buns, and longer for loaves of bread).
With buns, you don’t really have to let them cool for too long before you dig in. Bread loaves need to cool longer so that they can be cut.
Slather liberally with butter, and enjoy! We did!
Basic Bread Dough
1 tsp. sugar
½ c. warm water
1 tbsp. yeast
1 c. milk
3 tbsp. sugar
shake of salt
2 tbsp. butter (softened)
½ c. warm water
5-6 cups flour
Dissolve sugar in water and add yeast. Let activate. Add milk, sugar, salt, butter and water. Mix well. Stir in flour. Knead 5-10 minutes. Place in a lightly greased bowl. Let rise for one hour. Punch down and knead. Shape into greased pans. Let rise again. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown.