Monday, January 12, 2009

The Best (and Easiest) Homemade Bread

I love bread; but not just any bread. It has to be fresh out of the oven, piping hot, perfectly browned yeast bread. I've read more books on bread in the past four months than most people do in two lifetimes. Peter Reinhardt is THE MAN when it comes to bread! (Google him!) I've learned a lot along the way and intend to keep learning. I've recently entered the world of sourdough breads and am loving the experience. All that souring goodness does a body good. I've learned a thing or two about hooch, too, since I started playing with starters and reading about the proper feeding and caring of sourdough. The following recipe is my go-to recipe whenever I need a "quick" loaf. It's not quick, but it always delivers. And, seeing the smile of friends faces when a loaf shows up on their door -- what more could you ask for? OK, maybe a little butter and cinnamon sugar to go with it. Enjoy!

The Best (and Easiest) Homemade Bread
Yields 2 loaves
2 Cups warm water
2 Packets yeast
4 Tbsp sugar (heaping)
4 Tbsp shortening (heaping)
2 Tsp salt

1. Combine water and yeast. Let sit for at least 5 minutes or until mixture begins to bubble/foam.
2. Add sugar, some flour (about 1 cup) and shortening. Mix well. Continue adding flour until batter forms about the consistency of pancake batter.
3. Add salt. Continue adding flour until the dough is no longer sticky and pulls away from sides of bowl. Knead approximately 8 minutes or until the dough stretches and doesn’t tear when you pull it apart (the window pane test).
4. Cover with warm damp towel and let rise in warm place until double (about an hour). Punch down, shape into loaves and place in greased pan. Cover and let rise again.
5. Brush top with cooking spray or melted butter and bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until golden.

Substitutions: For wheat bread, substitute honey for sugar and oil for shortening and bake at 375 for 40 minutes or until golden. Your crust will be darker than if you use white flour. I like to add in at least a cup or two of wheat flour to my white flour bread.

Lessons learned: The recipe doubles very well. And, it takes no more effort to bake three or four loaves as it does to bake two. What's more, your neighbors will LOVE you!
For cinnamon bread, incorporate ground cinnamon into the loaf or spread cinnamon, sugar and a little butter on a rolled-out piece of dough, then roll up for a cinnamon swirl loaf. If you want to add raisins, roll them in with a swirl. If you incorporate them into the dough, the exposed raisins in the crust will burn during baking.
The recipe also works well for cinnamon rolls and fried scones (Indian fry bread).
You can get decorative with the top of the loaf. To get a fuller bloom (higher rise), cut shallow slashes into the dough before you bake it. This gives the bread the opportunity to rise just a little bit more during the baking process. The buttered top gives you a softer crust.

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