Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow Day with White Bread

The snow and the cold abide with us still. The thermometer on the back porch never rose above 15 degrees today, the kind of cold that inspires gratitude for warm shelter. All the birds darting and flitting around beneath the feeders had their feathers fluffed out for warmth. ( My Beloved wishes we had that ability.) The snow both fell and drifted deeply enough that their movements left wandering dashed trails across the yard.

I forsook my daily walk around the field because of the temperature and wind chill. My farthest venturing from the delicious indoor comfort was onto the back porch to capture just a little of the beauty and mystery of the snow. The ragged edge of the drift looked a bit like the bubbly surf trail on a beach a world away.

My shutter trigger finger started aching from the cold quite quickly while I was having such metaphorical thoughts. Obviously time to get back inside and keep that empty kitchen company again.

Today I wanted to make white bread, which I haven't made in many years, not since I discovered that whole grain bread kept hunger and low-blood-sugar shakes at bay much better. Besides wreaking havoc on my hypersensitive system (Spiking and crashing is no fun), we all know that it lacks the nutrition and fiber of whole grains. But I need to add to the personal repertoire I'm trying to create for myself, and stout bread isn't appropriate for everything. Bakers who want to quit feeling like losers need to know how to make a good farmhouse white, too.

Finding a recipe that met my expectations again took a while. I consulted my mother-in-law's battered Betty Crocker cookbook from the early 1960's (which, much to my consternation, had a lemon pie recipe that I could have used yesterday if I'd remembered that her cookbook collection was there!) and one other well-used cookbook, then checked around online. Again, the variations--in yield (I wanted just one test loaf) and ingredients and technique--were myriad. I ended up cobbling together two recipes and a remembered method to get the loaf I wanted. If I try really hard, I may recall it for you later.

Baking is, as many a person before me has noted, very therapeutic. There's an alchemy in transforming the simplest of ingredients into a deeply satisfying food that makes me feel as if everything is clearer and more right. When I got past the fumbling search for my own experimental recipe and held that warm, happy, well-kneaded ball of dough, as tender yet weighty as a baby's bottom, I felt a peaceful pride, not in myself but in the creation in my hand. Somewhere during the familiar actions of mixing and kneading, I sorted out my disturbed thoughts from yesterday's deflating lemon pie experiment and cut myself some belated slack.

I'm not an expert on much that I'm doing now, because most of it is new. If I'd wanted to be an expert, I would have stayed where I was, doing what I've mastered through repetition, the only way to be an old pro at anything. As my talented friend Jay once told me (approximately), "If you want to be good at something, do it 100 times." I'm out on the leading edge of my next 100 times where learning happens, and that's not comfortable or smooth. I need to set my recovering-perfectionist ego concerns aside and feel proud of being a bold beginner, an intrepid explorer.

I also need to give myself some credit for what I do know. I'm no culinary star, but I know enough to have my own ideas and ideals in food. I knew some of the qualities I wanted in a lemon pie yesterday and in the white bread today. I'm not just following recipes anymore, because I've come far enough to know by reading them whether the outcome is what I desire or not. I'm even hybridizing my own versions. I used to envy my boss's ability to do both. Now I understand that she acquired these skills as a result of experimental doing backed by a little confidence, not some divine gift. There is no way to learn but to do and fail and learn from that failure and do better.

One of the important things I've learned from my dabbling is that the world of food is vast and varied. There are a hundred ways to do anything, including lemon pie and white bread. We all get to find the way that suits us--and then be prepared for our ways to evolve as needed or desired. (Buttermilk and honey bread, anyone?) I'll share my test recipe, just in case, but don't hold me to it.

Thankfully my white bread turned out beautifully--tall and smoothly domed. While I don't care to ever again plaster the roof of my mouth with store bought white bread, homemade is an entirely different animal. It's soft, but still has body, both fluffy and sturdy at the same time. Good old farmhouse white makes the classic grilled cheese, which will be our bread-starring dinner tonight, and fabulous French toast, which we're already planning for breakfast tomorrow. Today's experiment was a winner. But then they all are in some way, teaching us either what to do or what not to do. There's always gain in the end if we're paying attention.

Ann's Test White Bread
Yield 1 loaf

1/3 cup warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 2/3--4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons sugar

1) Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a small bowl and let stand while you proceed.
2) In a medium bowl combine 1 2/3 cup of the flour and the salt.
3) Combine in a small microwave safe bowl the milk, butter, and sugar. Micro cook until very warm. The temperature should be about 100-110 degrees if you have a thermometer to check it. If not, it should feel very warm to your skin, not hot. The butter does not need to melt all the way. You can also do this step in a pot on the stove.
4) Stir the warm milk mixture and the yeast mixture into the flour.
5) Add the remaining flour 1/3 cup at a time, mixing vigorously after each addition, until you have a soft dough that comes away from the side of the bowl.
6) Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 6-8 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
7) Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover and let rest until doubled in size or until the indentation made by your finger doesn't spring back.
8) Punch the dough down and shape into a loaf. Placed shaped dough into greased 8" X 4" loaf pan and let rise until it's at least 1 inch above the top of the pan.
9) Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
10) Cool thoroughly (even though you don't want to) on a wire rack.

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