A baker friend had once told me “know what the dough ought to look and feel like and you’ll never need measure anything again!” I liked the sounds of that and since then I have used recipes a lot less and enjoy experimenting with confidence a lot more. And I found it has a very good effect for my health. This I discovered has to do with becoming more aware generally. Some of cooking for someone new to it, is surely coming out of a comfort zone. But even an experienced cook can still be living in a comfort zone to some extent. I certainly was because I relied on recipes that I had perfected over the years and they worked well for me. Cooking without a recipe was a new adventure and I found that it gave me more confidence in myself and expanded my awareness as well. Remarkably both of these improved my overall health and resistance to disease.
To make bread you need the following ingredients:
Yeast, sugar, lukewarm water or milk, oil or melted butter, plain flour.
yoghurt, semolina or polenta, mixed grains, walnuts, olives, onion.
To make the basic dough there are three stages.
1. Prepare the yeast.
I use the dried packet yeast about a table spoon. If you want to use fresh yeast then about a heaped tablespoon full.
The dried/ powder yeast can go straight into the water but with the fresh yeast it is a good idea to blend it into a thin paste before you add it into the water.
Stir the yeast to partially dissolve it with the same amount of sugar in lukewarm water.
Whether you use milk or water is a matter of what sort of loaf you want to make. And how much water you use will determine how much flour you will later add. It will determine the size of the loaf you make. The temperature of the water though is of great significance. What is too hot and what too cold?
If you can pour the water (milk) over your hand and it feels comfortably hot but NOT burning then it is the right temperature. Yeast is living organism and if you use really hot water (or milk) you will burn it and it will die and that means it will not give off carbon dioxide, the gas that will make your dough rise. You also need to stir the water /milk for half a minute so that you aerate the water. Yeast needs both sugar and air/ oxygen to grow just like we do. Love the yeast and be good to it and it will give you good results.
Next allow the yeast to stand in a warm place for it to get hydrated, ie to regain the water it lost when it was dried. Once it does that, it will begin to grow. After 10 or 15 minutes you will see that it has developed a beer-like head on it with lots of bubbles. As the yeast grows it gives off carbon dioxide, the same gas as we breathe out. This gas is the reason why bread dough rises and gives bread it’s light and fluffy texture.
The place that you leave your yeast and more particularly the dough that you want to rise, needs to be warm and has no drafts. I have made myself a bread-making arrangement with two CD towers (minus the CDs of course) and some wood.
As you can see in the picture and I have added some thin wooden sticks to hold up a canvas if I want to use the very top shelf as well. I used cloth and a non-toxic wood glue to cover and seal the wood and I have found that has been satisfactory. Well below the bottom shelf I can use my vertical oil-heater on a mild heat setting. You want the area to be fairly warm but not too hot. If it to get too hot your dough will get too hot and that may either kill the yeast or dry out too much at the top, which stops it from rising properly. I also throw a tablecloth or small sheet partially over the whole structure to create a warm draft-free area. If I have the door or window open the I draw the cover down so that the dough is well protected.
2. Making the dough.
Most people put their dry ingredients into a bowl make a well in the middle and add the yeast water. I found it only makes more washing and putting the flour straight into the yeast works just as well.
Now how much flour to use?
First you can create a slightly grainy texture by using a handful of coarse semolina or polenta. If you are going to do that then it is best to add this to the yeast first and give it 10 minutes or so to swell (back in the warm place). This uses up some of the water or milk that you have in your bowl. It means you will need less flour.
If you want to add in yoghurt into the dough now is the time to do it before you add the flour but make sure the yoghurt is at least at room temperature or slightly warmer. Yoghurt makes a very nice bread, if you like a little sour taste. How much yoghurt you add is again up to you but just bear in mind that the more you add the more sour the bread that you make. I have used up to about a cup full of yoghurt on occassions with good results.
Before I add the flour I add any oil or butter that I am going to use and I found little is better as a rule. A small teaspoonful is enough. Too much affects the yeast and I find the dough doesn’t rise so well. Also I have found that the bread is too moist if I add too much oil. Oil and butter can give your bread a nice sheen and crust but it doesn’t take much to get those results. Sometimes I do not add any oil or butter at all. If I use yoghurt I normally do not add any butter or oil.
Add nuts or seeds as you add the flour, a little at a time.
I don’t measure out the flour at all. I just keep adding flour and stir with a wooden spoon (you can also use a dough hook slowly on the elective beater). Here you need to get a feel for how much flour is enough and how much is too much or not enough. This is where you need to get a bit of your own experience and feeling the dough with your hands is better. If you use an electric mixer then you will find that the dough will come away from the sides and gather around the dough hook when it is ready. If you add too much flour you will end up with bread that is very dense and won’t rise so well. If you add too little then the bread will rise but will have too much air in it. I had wanted to see what would happen with too little flour and I found it rose well but was too crumbly to slice. The bush turkeys ate the lot.
Add enough flour to get the dough to the point where it is workable and no more. It should be quite sticky before you start kneading.
How much to knead?
As a rule knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic but 10 minutes kneading is also enough. It doesn’t matter if the dough is still just a little bit sticky when you finish kneading it. It is better to be a little sticky than to have too much flour or knead too long. Kneading develops the gluten, which are protein molecules in the flour. They join together to form a network and that network traps air. If you need it on a board or the bench top you may find that you have a tendency to want to add extra flour. The golden rule here is to use as little extra flour as possible. Sometimes I use a very large bowl for making the dough and when I do, I also knead my dough in the bowl. This makes it easier to use very little extra flour.
Another method you might like to try is throwing the dough onto a board on the floor or the bench top. Each time stretch the dough and fold it back on itself and then pick it up and throw it down again. You can start with very sticky dough and end up with very smooth dough after about ten minutes. This method makes very tiny air pockets spread uniformly throughout the dough. You will be surprised how very sticky dough can end up very smooth in a short amount of time.
In kneading we put lots of air into the dough so there will be minute pockets of air for the yeast to get the oxygen it needs to grow. As the yeast grows and multiplies it uses up the oxygen in the air pockets to make the energy it needs and give off carbon dioxide gas. This gas also gets caught up in the network /air pockets that have formed in kneading and that is what makes the dough expand and rise. So in kneading it is a matter of stretching and folding the dough over on itself and at many different positions to create as many air pockets as possible. After kneading the dough must be soft and easily made into a ball.
I do not knead my dough a second time. I found that if I knead it a second time I ended up with too much extra flour in the bread so I put the dough directly into the pan in which I am going to cook it at this stage. This is where you need to make a mental note of how much flour you have added and see what result you get. If you want you can keep a little note book to record If the bread has too many air pockets and lacks body you need to add more flour than you have added. If it is too dense then either you have over kneaded it or added too much flour. Ten minutes is ample time to knead your dough, sometimes even less. The key is to get as much air into it as possible and end up with a soft dough.
At this stage you can fold in olives and sliced onion if you wish. They are a very nice combination and are best with an oil/water based dough made with plain white flour.
3. Enabling the dough to rise.
Make the dough into a ball and put it into a very greasy pan and turn it over so that the top has been well greased. What you grease your dough with depends on the type of ingredients you use. If you make a milk loaf that has butter in it, then use melted butter to grease your pan. If you make a continental loaf, then use olive oil or any of your favorite oils to grease the pan. Always put a lot of grease in the pan and turn the dough over in the oil or butter. There is a very good reason for this and it has to do with how well the dough rises. Two key factors give your dough the best chances to rise. One is to make sure the top of the dough is well greased. This keeps it soft and locks in the moisture so it doesn’t dry out on top while it is rising. The other is to make sure that the place where you leave it to rise is not too hot. If the air is too hot the dough gets too hot it may kill the yeast but it may also harden the top and make it very difficult for the dough to rise. Also make sure the base of your pan is not too close to any heat source because if the yeast dies in the bottom part of the dough you will get the top rising okay but the bottom of your loaf will be doughy and lack an airy texture after it is cooked. Put a book or towel or something that is not a good conductor of heat so that the base is protected from the heat source. Leave the pan with your dough in a warm place without drafts for about an hour and a half to two hours. If all has gone well you will find that your dough has at least doubled in size. Once it has risen it is ready to cook.
Carefully carry the pan to the oven, which has been pre-heated to 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees F). Place it on the rack and close the oven door carefully. Cook for 35-40 minutes. The time taken depends on the size of your loaf.
It is best to allow the bread to sit in the pan out of the oven for a short while before removing it.
I often can’t wait to get it out and cut the first piece of crust to have hot with lashings of butter. Once you remove it from the pan put it on a rack to cool, then slice.
With a large loaf like this I cut each slice in half, which is just a good size to fit into my toaster or use as an open sandwich base.
If you forget to take the loaf out of the oven when it’s done.. don’t panic. I have made bread late at night, at 200 degrees C to cook for 37 minutes. And then having had a lot of work on my computer I had forgotten to take it out before going to bed. I only remembered it when I woke up the next morning. I went to the oven expecting to see my loaf in cinders but I was pleasantly surprised. The bread was just as good, well cooled and was ready to slice. I have since put bread to cook and gone to bed and every time I have found it is good.
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