I don't want you to be nervous, but it's time to talk about bread. And make bread, too.
Over the past four weeks, I've made an awful lot of bread. Overall, I've made a dozen challah (the braided egg bread that, if you won't bake yourself, you can buy in the bakery department of Stop & Shop). Over the past few days, I made four loaves of Portuguese sweet bread, which is not a sweet bread but does use lots of eggs and milk and a little bit of sugar. In about an hour (but you are, of course, reading this two weeks later), I will peel and cook lots of mashed potatoes so I can make mashed potato bread, which is totally yummy.
I made breads for years, but I stopped when my husband learned to make Charlie van Over's food-processor bread, which turns out the most amazing baguettes you can imagine. Why, I thought, should I make my own bread when Doug's was so good? But after Doug died, I didn't want to make Charlie's bread and, truth be told, Charlie would have to work with me on his system, which I know he would. But a few weeks ago, Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine asked me to make a challah to take to dinner at their house. They probably assumed I would buy one, but I got my bread books out and made a couple myself.
Making bread is much easier than baking in general. But there are some things that make bread baking even easier (and I'm not talking about a bread maker-you definitely do not need one). You need yeast, and I don't buy the stuff in the supermarket.
I buy mine from the King Arthur Catalog (visit
www.kingarthurflour.com/shop or call 800-827-6836) or in an organic food store. I keep mine in a tightly fitted jar in the refrigerator. If you have a KitchenAid mixer, you can let the mixer do the kneading for you. You need a big bowl to allow the dough to rise. It would be good if you have a dough scraper (you can get the kind you need for plastering at a hardware store). It would be good to get a digital thermometer so your yeast doesn't get warmer than 115 degrees. That's pretty much it. Don't be afraid; bread dough is forgiving.
Lee White of Old Lyme has been a food editor and restaurant reviewer for more than 25 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adapted from Beard on Bread (Ballantine Books, New York, 1973)
Makes 12 loaves
2 tablespoons active dry yeast (I use a rapid-rise yeast)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups warm water
(100 to 115 degrees, approximately)
1 tablespoon coarse salt (but any will do)
3 tablespoons softened butter
5 to 5½ cups all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
Proof yeast with sugar and warm water in a large bowl (your KitchenAid bowl, if you have one).
Add salt, butter, eggs, and flour, a cup at a time. Bear thoroughly with a wooden spoon or with your hands. Turn dough onto a board sprinkled with flour. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, approximately 10 minutes. (If you have a KitchenAid, use the dough hook and beat at low to medium for 10 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. Then turn dough onto a floured board and knead a few times.)
Place dough in a very large, buttered bowl; turn to coat the surface with butter. Cover (I use plastic wrap) and let rise in a draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1½ to 2 hours.
Punch the dough down and divide into 6 equal parts. Roll each portion into a rope about 1 inch in diameter on a floured board. Braid 3 ropes together to make 2 loaves. Place the breads about 6 inch apart on a buttered baking sheet. Cover and let rise in a draft-free place until almost doubled in bulk. (Err here on the less-than-bulk side so that you don't lose the springiness in the oven.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the egg yolk mixture on the top of the bread (I do this with my fingertips), then sprinkle some poppy seeds on the top. Bake for no more than 25 minutes. I check at 20 minutes. Bread is done when the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped with the knuckles. Cool on racks.