The Zen of Bread Baking
What is it about kneading bread dough that is so satisfying? The whole process of baking a loaf of homemade yeast bread ties me to past generation after generation, learning from my mom and grandmother as they made bread. On a cold winter day, the house would take on the warmth of the oven and the smell of baking bread filled the kitchen. I waited for that first bite of fresh bread spread with melting butter.
My favorite yeast bread is Delicatessen Rye. It has been a year or more since I’ve made the last batch. I recently discovered finding rye flour isn’t easy. After checking the shelves of my usual grocery store and not finding it, I asked several friends if they knew where I could purchase rye flour. I finally found a source at the local health food store.
To make Delicatessen Rye Bread (a Pillsbury recipe), first combine 2 ½ cups of white flour with 2 packages of dry active yeast, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds in a large bowl. Set this aside. In a saucepan, combine 1 ¾ cups milk, ¼ cup dark molasses, ¼ cup cooking oil and 1 square (1 ounce) unsweetened baker’s chocolate.
A trick I’ve learned is to measure out the oil before the molasses or any other sticky ingredient such as honey. By doing this the molasses will pour out easy and clean.
Heat this mixture over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the chocolate melts and the liquid reaches 120 – 135 degrees. I use a candy thermometer to measure the temperature. Be sure not to let it touch the bottom of the pan. If the liquid is too hot, let it cool to the desired temperature. If the liquid is too hot it will kill the yeast when added to the dry ingredients. Add 1 egg and whisk to blend well.
Pour the liquid into the flour mixture and combine using a wooden spoon. Stir in 3 cups of rye flour, one cup at a time. Scrape the edges of the bowl occasionally. The dough will be stiff when you are done. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead and work in an additional ¼ to 1 cup of white flour. Form dough into a smooth mound.
Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. After trying several spots, I found the best place in my house is in the basement on top of the furnace
.After the dough has risen, turn it out onto the floured surface again. Cut the dough in half. Gently knead each half of the dough, forming each piece into a smooth mound or into loaves. Place each dough mound in a greased and floured 8 inch round cake pan. Place loaves in greased and floured loaf pans. Cover and let rise a second time for 40 minutes.
When the dough is done rising, bake the bread at 375 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes. When the bread is done it will sound hollow when lightly tapped. I double-check by inserting a toothpick into the thickest part of the loaf. Remove the loaves from the oven and brush the tops with melted butter for a softer crust. I find this bread goes especially well with hearty soups such as bean or chili.
I bought a bread machine several years ago and used it two or three times then sold it in a yard sale. There is something so basic, so Zen, about making bread with my hands the old-fashioned way. When my oven is warming the house and the smell of baking bread fills the rooms I know if I close my eyes I can return to mom or grandma’s kitchen. I will pass on the tradition of bread baking to my granddaughters. It is a gift I received and cherish but that is meant to be passed along for generations to come.