After a series of increasingly bad dinners that culminated with me being assured that I never actually have to cook ever again, I decided to return to more familiar kitchen terrain, and today I am baking bread.
I learned how to bake bread at my mother's bosom. It was Green Bay WI in the 1970's and grocery stores didn't have bakeries and she had seven mouths to feed on one income. Making bread at home was cost effective and probably more convenient than buying it. Later, when she re-entered the workforce and there was less time and more money, we would frequent the Dolly Madison outlet off of East Main in what is now known as the Three Corners neighborhood. But before such cushy times, I remember a childhood full of a different type of comfort - the smell and taste of home made bread.
This was also before bread machines, and my mother made her bread by hand. I follow this practice even with such modern conveniences as the Kitchen Aid (complete with dough hook) in the house. What I learned from my mother is that it's not just about the finished product. I learned that bread is about family, and that a lot of love goes into it. Bread is also about the process. And the process you follow shapes the end result.
I also learned that dough feels good. I learned this when I was four. Making bread was a family ritual shared by me, my mom, and eventually my younger sisters while my dad was at work and my older brother and sister were at school. Only we younger ones got to punch down the warm dough after the first rise and help knead out the air created by the yeast. And once the bread had baked, only we got slices of still-steaming bread covered with Mom's home made jelly, often made with fruit growing wild in our back yard.
Mis en place
While my mom made a very nice, hearty loaf of white - and then later whole wheat - bread, I make potato bread. I use the Joy of Cooking recipe as my guide. Bread is one of those things that, because it so hands-on, absorbs the energy you put into it. If you knead the dough to work out your anger and frustration, the dough won't rise properly. You also get better results from your yeast when the moon is full. And, all ingredients should be at room temperature when you start as cold eggs or milk will result in sluggish yeast. For potato bread, the type of spud you use also has an impact based on the starch content. I get results that I like best with red potatoes. They have a strong potato flavor and are not too starchy.
Sweating eggs are still too cold
Buttermilk Potato Bread
3/4 cup mashed potatoes, still warm
1 stick very soft butter
4 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp salt
about 6 1/2 cups flour
I'll start with reheated left-over mashed potatoes if we have any. If not, I'll make my own. a couple of good-sized potatoes should be enough. I don't usually measure them out but then add enough flour at the end to make it work. I also season the potatoes with salt, pepper, butter, cream, and herbs.
Using a large bowl, mix the softened butter into the potatoes until fully integrated. Add the yeast, buttermilk, egg, sugar, and salt.
If you don't have buttermilk on hand - I know I never do - you can make your own by adding a couple of dashes of a light vinegar - not Balsamic - to regular milk.
Add some vinegar to curdle slightly
Add the first three cups of flour and blend in with a spatula or wooden spoon. Once integrated, begin adding the remaining flour one cup at a time. After for or five cups of flour have been added, you'll need to give up the utensils and mix by hand. This is a wonderful experience. If the dough is still sticky after all the flour has been added, add a little more until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Smooth and elastic dough
Once it's the right texture, shape it into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl, flipping it to coat with the oil. Cover with a towel and leave it alone to rise until it has doubled in size, about an hour or so. This can be done at room temperature. However, if the various factors cited above prevent you from getting a rise out of the dough, place it in a warm oven (175 or lower) with the door ajar.
Doubled in size
Once the rise is complete, knead out the air, using additional flour if the dough becomes sticky. Shape the dough into two loaves and place into greased loaf pans with any seams or creases facing down. I am partial to Pyrex glass pans as the glass provides an even baking temperature and creates a nice crust. I also recommend using the full 8- or 9-inch loaf pans rather than mini-loaf pans for a yeast bread.
Cover and let rise again, keeping an eye on things as this rise is usually quicker - about 45 minutes or less.
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how your oven behaves. Pay attention to things after the first 30 minutes. Things baked in my oven tend to develop a dark outer crust before the insides are completely cooked. When the upper crust is just about the right color, I cover the loaves with foil until the rest of the bread catches up. Once I see a golden brown crust forming on the bread in the pan (I can see this because I'm using Pyrex), the bread is done.
Fresh from the oven
Cool in the pans on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting a piping hot slice, slathering it in butter, and enjoying thoroughly.