In & Out of the Kitchen: Perfect loaf remains just out of reach

This cast-iron baked loaf was easy enough to make but came out tough as heck.

This cast-iron baked loaf was easy enough to make but came out tough as heck.

LIFE & ARTS What was your New Year’s resolution? Do you even remember it? Mine was to bake bread again.

I’d taken some stabs at it years ago with fairly good results, but was kind of intimidated by the process so I stopped. Which sounds stupid, yes.

But early this year when I purchased the packets of dried yeast, I was determined to actually use them. Unlike last November, which was National Bread Baking Month, and the November before that — and the ones before that.

I even bought a bag of King Arthur bread flour. Then I made bread.

First I made bread in a cast-iron Dutch oven, a method first described in The New York Times’ The Minimalist column by Mark Bittman in 2006. It “revolutionized bread baking,” according to Peter Reinhart, author of “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.”

It’s easy, anyone can do it, said all the articles, accompanied by photos of loaves that would not look out of place in a San Francisco bakery window or European boulangerie.

It doesn’t require any special equipment other than the vessel and some parchment paper, and you don’t even have to knead the dough.

The idea is that the dough steams inside the covered pot, mimicking a commercial steam oven. It produces a crunchy, professional crust.

It goes like this: You mix a simple dough of flour, yeast, water, salt and maybe sugar into a wet, shaggy dough. It rises; times vary, but overnight is recommended to allow best flavor to develop.

Heat your Dutch oven, empty, in a 400-plus degree oven. Some manufacturers do not recommend heating the pot empty. If it has a plastic handle it can melt. Maneuver your wet, sloppy dough into the screaming hot pot (the parchment paper helps), slap on the lid and throw it in the oven.

I paced the whole time it cooked, and was relieved to see it browned and bread-like when it was finished.

But I didn’t do it right, somehow: It was more disc than dome, and it was tough as heck. Husband Eric politely ate a slice and discreetly left the crusts.

Next, I turned to my mom’s white bread recipe, which makes one loaf. I assumed my DNA would facilitate me easily generating a replica of hers. It went OK until it was time to turn the dough onto the counter and knead it.

As a kid I watched my mom rhythmically kneading big pillows of dough for three or four loaves of bread at a time, smoothly and easily. The final dough was always sleek and pillowy and elastic. I never thought I couldn’t do it.

Until I tried. I turned the dough onto the counter and it became a fight.

The idea is to turn and fold, turn and fold. I was folding it and then pressing on the dough to keep it folded. Then I’d try to fold that half-folded hunk again. When that didn’t work, I’d press harder. King Arthur experts say to lean into the dough with the heel of your hand. Soon I was banging my fist on it.

Back into the mixer, which reminded me, after a few minutes with the dough hook, that it’s more than 20 years old. When grinding noises and the smell of motor oil emanated from within, I realized I was taxing the machine.

Also, instead of the dough hook working in the dough, it wanted to push the ball around the bowl.

A few times I stopped the mixer and lifted the head, then lowered the hook smack into the middle of the ball.

When bread dough is fully kneaded it should sheet, that is, when you pull a bit away from the mass, it stretches easily and gets very thin in the middle, almost see-through.

It didn’t, and I had kneaded the heck out of it, so I stopped. I went ahead and baked it anyway.

To no one’s surprise, this beaten-up dough baked into a heavy, dense and chewy loaf.

I had better luck with a French bread recipe. I let the machine do the kneading and formed a decent baguette. We had it for dinner the same day with potato leek soup, and it was good. Not bakery good, but not bad. It was stale the next day and turned into croutons.

I’m still at it and will report regularly on my progress. I’ll rewatch those instructional videos on kneading and shaping a loaf.

The goal is to make a good loaf of white bread like Mom’s. In the meantime, I made a recipe for soft dinner rolls that came out pretty good. Know why? They didn’t require any kneading. There are lots of no-knead recipes out there.

But I’m determined to figure it out and do it right from beginning to end, no mixer. At least until I’ve got the kneading part down.

Here is the recipe for my mom’s white bread.

White Bread

2 pkg. active dry yeast or 2 cakes of fresh yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105 degrees to
115 degrees)
1 cup hot milk, scalded
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. shortening
4 cups bread flour (Pillsbury)
melted shortening for brushing
melted butter for brushing
1 egg white beaten with 1 tsp. water

Dissolve yeast in measuring cup with warm water. Set aside.
In large mixing bowl, combine hot milk, sugar, salt and shortening. Cool to lukewarm (85 degrees). Blend in 2 cups flour until smooth. Stir in dissolved yeast.
Add enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Cover with towel; let rest 10 minutes. Knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
Grease large bowl with shortening. Place dough in bowl. Grease top of dough with melted shortening. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. For fresh yeast, this should take about 1 hour; with packaged, about 2.
Turn dough out onto floured surface. Shape into loaf. Place in large buttered bread loaf pan. Brush with melted butter.
Cover, let rise until doubled. Fresh yeast will cause the dough to rise faster, about 30 minutes; regular yeast about 1 hour.
Place in preheated 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Brush with beaten egg white mixture.
Return to oven and continue baking 5 minutes more or until golden brown.
Makes 1 large loaf. Mom used this 3 times for 4 slightly smaller loaves
– Mom used a bread loaf pan that’s 9 inches by 5 inches by 3 inches deep.
– To scald milk, heat in a small saucepan until hot and bubbles form around edge.
– About rising: Dough should be covered and placed in a warm spot away from drafts. You can turn the oven on low for a minute, then shut it off, or put the bowl in a cold oven with a pan of very hot water. Oven should be warm but not hot.

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy.  Reach her at [email protected]  

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