Food — Don't Dread The Bread
Don't Dread The Bread

By Amy Diaz

Thinking is not good for bread.

When I set out to make bread from scratch, I researched, I analyzed and I planned. I tried to get the temperature just right, to plan out the best times and locations for rising and the precise temperature at which to cook my creation.

As it turns out, this was totally the wrong way to go about it.

Help came in the form of The Hippo’s own John Fladd, who you may know from his Almost Gruntled columns and countless food stories over the years. After I described to him my attempts at bread making and the resulting concrete bricks I created, he shook his head and told me I was thinking about it way too much.

But what about the strict guidelines to never let your yeast enter the same room that even a molecule of salt has ever inhabited, what about the Commandment-like requirement that only a wooden fork should touch the fragile mixture of yeast and water?

“You’re overthinking it,” he said.

His advice was simple — yeast wants a warm, vaguely sweet place to activate and a moderately warm place to rise. Otherwise, it wants you to leave it alone. (Insert husband/boyfriend-related joke of your choice here.)

Into a bowl, he unceremoniously dumped about a package’s worth of yeast, about a 1/4 cup of molasses (honey or sugar works too), about a teaspoon of salt and about 2/3 cup of lukewarm but not cold water. He stirred it with a whisk (my bread books would have been shocked; I think the large picture book might have fainted) and then set the concoction aside.

Wait like 10 minutes, he told me.

Some 15 or so minutes later (there were chips and dip and bottled liquor that tasted vaguely Jolly Rancher-ish, so nobody kept very close watch on the clock), we checked back with the bowl. Sure enough, the yeast was happily bubbling and foaming and all but frolicking in its spa-like environment. 

Eschewing stern fingerwaggery about the importance of bread flour, Fladd blithely mixed in all-purpose unbleached flour. First, he stirred in maybe 1 1/2 cups with a spoon. Then, when a fairly raggedy ball of dough started to form, he dumped it out onto a floured surface and kneaded it, working in another, maybe, 1/2 cup.

“Knead it until it feels boob-like,” he said.

A perfect description of the correct consistency. The well-kneaded bread was both soft and firm. He oiled the sides of a bowl with olive oil and plopped the dough into it, covering the dough with plastic wrap.

“So crap won’t fall on it,” he said. Despite all my fussy attempts to cover dough with a slightly damped opaque flour sack cloth, the yeast could really give a damn about what serves as its roof.

In a tip he picked up from other bread makers, Fladd showed me how to warm the dough slightly with a heating pad. Turn the pad on low, place it in a larger bowl than the bowl the bread’s in, place the bread bowl in the bigger bowl and presto, warm dough.

About two hours later, the dough doubled in size and was ready for its punching. After that, shape into a, well, vaguely boob-like dome and let rise for another 30 minutes to an hour on a cookie sheet covered with corn meal (to keep the bread from sticking).

A covering of olive oil, egg wash, honey or milk will create varying crusts. Cook for about 30 minutes (a tap to the bottom of the loaf will sound hollow).

The secret’s all in the not thinking.

—Amy Diaz

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