After a recent slew of busy days, I knew that Passover was surely over. On my busiest of days, three out of four meals were sandwiches on the go, and I realized what an integral and wondrous component bread can be… and I don’t even mean the wonder of the challah!
Bread is served at every meal. With a glass of orange juice and newspaper in hand, we crunch into toast at breakfast. Lunch on the go is a quick sandwich, and there are endless possibilities for bread at dinnertime. Even if you’re just serving soup and salad – bread is there. As a complement to any meal, choosing the right bread is where the fun begins.
Smelling the aroma of bread, fresh from the bakery oven has got to be one of the most enticing culinary experiences for me! Does anything compare? Well actually, baking at home and creating both the bread and that phenomenal smell in your own home does! Baking bread is a lot easier than most would think, but it takes some practice until you can be secure with your own skills. So be prepared to toss a couple of failed loaves into the trash, or at best, turn a botched loaf into a batch of croutons!
There are many different types of breads, but really you just have to master the art of basic bread dough; then become inventive, creative and daring to produce exotic and uniquely flavored loaves. Adding rosemary, raisins or olives to the dough is a great way to jump start your bread baking experimentation. Sweet or savory, breads can add dimension to your meals, or be totally delicious and satisfying when eaten alone.
Most breads come from a mixture of flour, sugar, water, and yeast. Yeast has caused many a home-cook to run the other way… straight to the bakery. So here’s a better understanding of yeast, so that we may all try our hand at baking.
Yeast is a living, microscopic, single-cell organism. As this amoeba grows, it converts its food into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When we purchase it in the little square packets, the yeast is in its dormant stage. The lack of moisture keeps the yeast inactive. The perfect combination of warmth, moisture and nourishment will allow baker’s yeast to grow to be utilized as a leavening agent.
If you really want to understand yeast, imagine comparing it to a baby. Seems weird, but work with me here. When first purchased, yeast in its dormant stage, is like a sleeping baby. Warm water (between 105° and 115° F) will wake it up; and once the baby is awake, sugar will feed it. Like all humans after eating, they get gassy! This combination of ingredients produces carbon dioxide (in the form of bubbles). The carbon dioxide’s bubble activity causes the dough of most breads to rise.
Back to bread…next we add flour to the yeast, water and sugar. As the dough is kneaded, elastic-like gluten from the flour helps hold in the gas bubbles, and in turn causes the dough to rise. This part does take time, so be patient.
Once the dough has doubled in size, we punch the dough down. By this, we are extracting the previously caught air bubbles. After punching, we re-cover with a kitchen towel and leave it to double in size again. This is the time when the yeast and other ingredients are developing their flavor. When the dough has doubled again, and after punching once more, you can form it into the desired loaf or shape into a challah.
Challah is usually braided using three or four strands, although on special occasions, a six strand challah is the center of attention on any dining room table; and a round challah adds a sense of wholeness to the spirit of the New Year. Other bread doughs can be shaped into loaves, bread sticks, mini rolls or knots. After shaping, brush the bread with an egg yolk glaze, egg whites or olive oil for a shiny finish and sprinkle with something interesting. Poppy and sesame usually top the list, but get creative and try a dusting of Parmesan cheese or fresh herbs.
The more you practice the art of baking bread -- the better you’ll get. It really doesn’t take long and it’s a beautiful kitchen talent you’ll be glad you worked at! Here’s a recipe for Bialy Loaf that you’ve likely never tried before at home!