I’ve mentioned here and there that one of my goals in 2017 is learning to work with yeast, and regularly making our own homemade bread. Yes, you can buy a cheap loaf of what passes for bread at the store; most stores also have bakeries that do a slightly better job. But those loaves tend to be pricey.
I think there’s also something satisfying about doing it yourself. I still have some vague aspirations towards homesteading (I’m going to try to grow some of our food this summer, for example). Bread baking taps into those mild feelings of self-sufficiency, and when you struggle with chronic depression, as I do, feeling like you’re Doing Something can really be a balm.
I like to think it also reduces waste somewhat; I’m less likely to toss the end of a homemade loaf, for example, and it eliminates the paper or plastic packaging from the store. I haven’t quite worked out yet what the efficiency difference is in my using my own oven versus the effectively communal oven at the store. I sort of assume that my keeping the ingredients at home versus those kept in a bakery is a wash, even if I use Prime Pantry (affiliate link), for example. Don’t quote me on that, though.
Noodling on whether it’s actually worth it financially and environmentally, though, there’s the challenge. I’ve never been a natural at yeast doughs. My hands run hot, and somehow, even knowing that, I inevitably overflour during kneading and end up with dense, sort of yucky loaves. I’ve always used that as an excuse to not try very hard; I’ve had a few forays with bread machines, but I feel like they kind of smell funny and make weird loaves. I keep losing my KitchenAid’s dough hook, somehow. Et cetera.
But I decided that this, 2017, would be the Year I Finally Did It. And I’m pleased with my progress so far. I started with laminated sticky rolls on Christmas morning. If you’re not familiar, laminated doughs are similar to puff pastry, or to croissants. A block of butter is folded inside the dough, pounded out, and rolled and folded repeatedly to make many thin layers of dough, butter, dough, butter. They’re considered intimidating, I think just because you need to keep things cold and work relatively quickly, and because they involve more steps than we’re generally used to. I have a croissant-baking course from Craftsy that uses rulers and exact measurements and so on.
These, though, were just simple little sticky rolls. I mean, how badly could I mess them up? Surely they’d have to be edible, at least, being covered in cinnamon and sugar and butter and orange peel. I’m in the process of typing up my experience with the recipe from Not Quite Nigella, but I liked that they involved only the most minimal kneading. This, I thought, I can probably handle. And I could! I didn’t add half a bag of flour trying to stop my hands from sticking, and I managed the turns (the bits where you roll the butter into layers) with no wailing or gnashing of teeth or anything. And the resulting rolls were completely lovely. See? Don’t mind the phone pic.
I think starting with something technically difficult was a good plan, because it all feels a bit downhill from there. My next experiment was a sugar cake, or Zuckerkuchen, from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking book. Lots of German cakes use yeast for leavening, which is surprising to Americans. I think most of our experience with yeast-leavened cakes is from coffee cakes, which most people of my acquaintance just buy at the store. Entenmann’s, for example.
The Zuckerkuchen was a simple, straightforward recipe – just make and knead a fairly rich (i.e. lots of butter, sugar, and eggs) yeast dough, let it rise, put sugar and butter allllll over it, and bake. Well. It turns out that all the rich ingredients make it harder for yeast to do its work of making the dough rise. So does a cold room. I left it to rise for a few hours, about twice what the book recommended, and it was still flatty flat flat and nowhere near the size to fill the pan. Slightly puffy, but not very. I figured I’d give it a bake anyway and it did taste pretty good – how could it not, being covered in butter and sugar? It did taste a little underdeveloped – do you know that kind of salty, floury, bitter taste you can get sometimes in bread doughs? It had that.
I wondered where I’d gone wrong and suspected either dead yeast or that I hadn’t kneaded it enough or… something. Just in case, though, I checked the temperature in the kitchen – 58F. That’s a good 12 degrees below the recommended temperature for yeast to work happily. Oops. (Our kitchen isn’t climate controlled, but I didn’t realize it was quite that cold.) Noted to allow much, much more time in future when baking in my house in the winter.
Still, it didn’t look too bad, right? Just a bit… dense. It all got eaten anyway. I chalked up the errors to learning experience and will certainly try this cake again in the near future.
Feeling a little less confident, I embarked on a second yeast-leavened cake; this time, the Bee-Sting Cake, or bienenstich, from Smitten Kitchen. This dough didn’t require kneading or even a dough hook, which seemed like a good thing to me. I figured I’d give it several extra hours to rise properly, and went on my merry way. Much to my joy, it rose properly, given enough time. I made the caramelized almond topping, spread it over the top, and baked it – and it puffed up gorgeously. The crumb was so soft and tender and it was an utter joy to eat. (I skipped the pastry cream, since I made this on a weekday. It seemed a bit over the top for a midweek cake.) Learning to work with yeast, experiment 3: Huge success.
My three-year-old told me that he didn’t like the almond cake and he wanted vanilla cake. More for me! Next time I’ll use a smaller spoon to apply the almonds. Deb specifies that in the directions, but I thought I’d be alright with the large one I’d used for stirring. You can see that there are some clumps and some totally bare cake. So, that’s why the small spoon.
At this point feeling very bold indeed in learning to work with yeast, it was time to move on to… bread. Dun dun dun. I’ve got a copy of the New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, which involves no kneading and really just encourages you to set a super-hydrated dough in the fridge. Then you cut off pieces and bake them as needed.
I’m still working with the giant Costco pack of SAF (red) instant yeast, so I made the dough – again in a stand mixer with the paddle, not even a dough hook. The book directs you to let it rise for 2 hours, or until it deflates again. In my case, it took overnight, and then I just moved it even closer to the kitchen windows for storage. The fridge is full, and the spot by the windows is only slightly warmer than fridge temperature anyway.
The next day, I used my beloved bench knife to cut off a two-pound chunk of dough – the size of a canteloupe, it told me. I was to flour the top before cutting, and then stretch and smooth the dough into an oval with seams on the bottom and plop it into a loaf pan. I did. I then let it rise for 90 minutes near a heating vent in the living room, and it turned into what looked like an actual loaf of bread.
The top having been brushed with melted butter, into the oven it went (along with a chocolate cake, because why waste the fuel baking one thing when you can bake several?), and emerged 45 minutes later, golden brown and glorious. More butter, and then waiting. We took a nap amidst the smell of cake and bread permeating the house. When we woke up, it was tea time – time to eat those delicious smells.
I’m really quite pleased with my bread. The crumb is fine and tender, and the crust has a great flavor. I might’ve liked it a little browner but I’m not sure how much more time it will tolerate in the oven. I also think it could use just the tiniest bit more salt as the flavor is slightly flat. Next time I may add five minutes and see. It makes lovely toast and, spread with good butter, is a real treat. There’s another loaf’s worth of dough awaiting its turn to be baked, too.
And so, a month into 2017, I feel like I might – if I stick with it – possibly just become the master of yeasted doughs. Maybe. I’ll let you know, OK?