Bread machines. They were a really hot item a few years ago. Suddenly, everyone had to have one, and for a while we all reaped the benefits of homemade bread of infinite variety; coworkers brought loaves to work, friends proudly served up piping hot bread at dinner parties. Then after a few years, the bread machine was relegated to the back of the pantry or out to the garage along with other small appliances that seem to come and go from our lives – steamers and toaster ovens, waffle irons, an old electric skillet, a turkey roaster (not actually out of your life—just not kept in the kitchen after Thanksgiving and Christmas have come and gone. Oh, yes, and the deep fryer—didn’t we all get a Fry Baby one year? And at one time we had parts to no less than FIVE food choppers and not one of them worked. Those parts were finally donated to Goodwill. I still do most of my food chopping by hand with a sharp knife.
There were several reasons why I didn’t want a bread machine. One was that I couldn’t figure out where I could possibly put one more kitchen appliance. The space on all of my kitchen counters is filled; I have given away bowls, pots, and pans to my sons and daughters in law, nieces and nephews to think out my kitchen cupboards and we even bought a baker’s rack one year just to hold some of the many kitchen things I couldn’t live without.
In more recent years, there have only been a couple of kitchen appliances that I felt were indispensable. One was my electric steamer (which doubled as a rice cooker) – and which I will confess is now stored in a cupboard in the garage. The other was my pressure cooker and THAT reigns supreme in a kitchen cupboard. I have actually gone through several pressure cookers over the years—if you work, this is one of the most useful, practical items you could have in your kitchen (and forget those old wives’ tales about them exploding because today’s pressure cookers are really very safe to use)—and there are a lot of new (or recently published) cookbooks for pressure cookers—I have written about pressure cookers before on my blog but that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Two other indispensable kitchen appliances, in my book, are the electric blender and my electric mixer. Both of mine are Kitchen Aid products.
However, I remain ambivalent about the value of a bread machine even though I now own one (my youngest son and his wife gave it to me one Christmas. It’s in the garage cupboard) – so let me tell you why.
If you have ever made homemade yeast bread, from scratch (without the assistance of a machine) you will have discovered what our mothers and grandmothers knew; kneading bread has an esoteric quality about it. My mother and both of my grandmothers understood the message that kneading bread conveyed from your fingers to your brain. When you knead bread, you press the bread flat, then fold the dough over on itself, towards you, and then push it away from you with the heels of your hands. You give the dough a quarter turn and push again. Most bread recipes call for kneading the dough anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. I used this time to free my mind of all worries, as I gazed out my kitchen window and kneaded the dough until it had a silky-smooth feel to it. Bread machines (as well as electric mixers with a dough hook) have taken away this step—to my mind this would have been like hiring someone to come in and decorate my Christmas trees—much of the joy and the satisfaction—is in the preparation.
It’s been a while since I have made homemade bread; those of you who have been following my blog for sometime know that last year, my significant other, Robert, passed away. I did so little cooking and baking throughout 2011 while he was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy and had little interest in any kind of food. For some months after he died, I had little interest in cooking and baking and gradually discovered there is yet another way of food preparation—that of cooking for one. And sometimes I cook or bake for my son and daughter in law, and two of my grandchildren. Mostly I bake cookies.
One of the rewards of baking little loaves of bread of any kind is that they make fine gifts during the holidays—a small jar of jelly or jam, accompanied by a little loaf of bread, is universally appreciated by friends, family, or the service people in your life – the mail carrier, the clerks at your local post office, your manicurist or hair dresser.
In addition to recipes for tea breads (which you can find on this blog), there are also a lot of very good bread cookbooks. Among my collection are THE BOOK OF BREAD, by Judith & Evan Jones, The Farm Journal’s HOMEMADE BREAD, THE BREAD BOOK/A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking, by Laurel Robertson with Carol Flinders and Bronwen Godfrey, OUR DAILY BREAD by Stella Standard, and A WORLD OF BREADS by Dolores Casella…but among my very favorites are the booklet-size bread cookbooks published by Fleischmann’s and Red Star Yeast. These companies want to make sure your bread-making endeavor is a success; consequently, they provide excellent detailed instructions and fool-proof recipes. But if you are serious about bread making and want to learn all about it—then I suggest you get a copy of Elizabeth David’s ENGLISH BREAD AND YEAST COOKERY, or find a copy of the spiral-bound WHEN THE KNEAD RISES by Jackie E. Guice, or even a copy of the Sunset Cook Book of BREADS – which is a soft-cover unglamorous cookbook but is very basic and a great cookbook to learn with. Back in the day when sourdough starters were making the rounds, the chapter on sourdough recipes in the Sunset Cook Book of Breads was my cooking bible. I was reminded of Sour Rye Bread as I was writing this post, and think I will try my hand at making rye bread again soon.
However, my all-time favorite book about bread isn’t a cookbook. It’s called SIX THOUSAND YEARS OF BREAD by H. E. Jacob. Published in 1944, it is an excellent and fascinating tribute to the staff of life.
My mother learned how to make and bake bread at the elbow of her mother-in- law, my paternal grandmother who taught the craft to her daughter and daughters-in-law. My mother made two large loaves of bread in roasting pans, twice a week, when we were children. There is very little on earth to compare with a crust of hot bread, spread with butter and maybe a little bit of strawberry jam (especially if he jam is also homemade).
When my sons were young children, I often made my own bread, biscuits, rolls and quick breads. I discovered I could put my yeast dough into a large Tupperware bowl, snap the lid on and set it inside my car on a warm day, to get it to rise quickly.
The old fashioned way of making bread, of kneading the dough, is disappearing from our culinary landscape. Even my most recent Fleischmann booklet contains recipes for making bread with a bread machine.
I searched long and hard for my mother’s bread recipe, but I don’t think it was ever written down. She learned how to make bread by watching my grandmother, who never measured anything, much less wrote down any of her recipes. I searched through all of my recipe box collections of other women’s recipe collections but didn’t find anything even remotely like what I was searching for. The closest I was able to come up with is from a cookbook published in the 1940s and white bread was made like this:
2 cups scalded water (can use milk or potato water, but my mother’s bread, for economical reasons, was always made with water)
1 cake compressed yeast or 1 package granular yeast
6 to 6½ cups white all-purpose flour
1 TBSP salt
2 TBSP sugar
2 TBSP fat*’
Combine yeast with ¼ cup of the liquid which has been cooled to lukewarm. To the rest of the liquid, add the fat, sugar, and salt. When lukewarm, add the yeast, half of the flour, and beat. Add remaining flour gradually. Toss on floured board and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Put into a greased bowl, cover and let rise until double in size—this takes about an hour. Punch down, shape the bread into loaves, and place in greased baking pans. (Loaves should be half the depth of the pan and slightly larger). Cover and let rise again. Bake at 350 F about 345 minutes or until done. When done, bread shrinks from the pan and when you tap the crust, it should have a slightly hollow sound.
*The fat used in my mother’s bread was most likely whatever bacon grease or other fat she might have saved. She saved all grease/fats throughout the year and in the fall would make up a batch of her all-purpose lye soap. (but that’s another story!)
The poet Louis Untermeyer once wrote, “What hymns are sung, what praises said, for homemade miracles of bread?”
Happy cooking! Happy baking!
–Sandra Lee Smith