Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Bread Challenge: Amish White Bread

"I don't want to kid you: To make great bread, the kind that makes you think you should be eating bread at every meal, the kind that makes you really proud, is an accomplishment. It takes practice, even skill, good ingredients, much more time (though not much more work once you get the rhythm down), and even a bit of luck. More than most foods, bread is alive; yeast, even today's standardized yeast, is a little unpredictable."
~ From How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman
I have a complicated relationship with bread baking, which lies in the fact that every time I've attempted it - the kneading, the resting, the rising, the resting again, the kneading again - I have failed. The bread doesn't rise and lays like a brick at the bottom of my pan. The bread does rise, but I leave it in the oven too long and the crust is hard and impenetrable, even with the sharpest knife. I get half way through the process and forget about the dough, abandoning it on top of my refrigerator for three days before I remember. Okay, so the bread isn't to blame for all my failures, but still - that quote from Mark Bittman made me feel a little better about my struggles. Bread is hard to get right, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. 

Enter my new favorite blog, Brooklyn Homesteader, and her recent Bread Challenge. The rules are simple: bake a loaf of bread every week all winter long; document the bread by photo or video; eat and enjoy the bread, wasting none of it. For the novice bread baker, this seemed like a perfect challenge, and so I committed myself on the spot. By spring, I hope to emerge from the cold clutches of winter an accomplished baker of bread.

And because we all have to start somewhere, I present my effort for week one. I searched the Internet for a recipe that contained only the most basic ingredients and the shortest list of directions. I ended up baking this Amish White Bread, which came out perfectly - fluffy, light, with just a hint of sweetness. I alternated between marveling at the finished product and devouring it, slice after delicious slice. I can only hope the rest of my experiments in bread turn out half as well as this one.

Amish White Bread
recipe from  

You will need:
1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1/3 cup white sugar
2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 envelope)
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cups bread flour (I used unbleached, all purpose flour because that's what I had)

Directions (and my notes!): 
In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water, and then stir in yeast. Allow to proof until yeast resembles a creamy foam. (I tossed my first attempt at proofing the yeast because it didn't look foamy enough and I didn't want to take any chances. This tutorial helped put my mind at ease.)

Mix salt and oil into the yeast. Mix in flour one cup at a time. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. (I used my KitchenAid mixer's bread hook for perhaps the first time ever, which made this part literally effortless. Why did I wait so long?) Place in a well oiled bowl, and turn dough to coat. Cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. 

(My house is kind of cold so I ended up letting it rise for closer to three hours. I learned this tip from a fellow MFA student and talented bread baker. I'm glad she shared this tip with me, because it worked beautifully.) 

Punch dough down. Knead for a few minutes. Shape into a loaf, and place into a well oiled 9x5 inch loaf pan. Allow to rise for 30 minutes, or until dough has risen 1 inch above pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 30 minutes. (Allow to cool completely before cutting into thick slices and slathering in Earth Balance. Try not to eat the whole loaf in one day.)