For too many of us, making bread belongs in the same category as public speaking and bungee jumping. The condition could be listed in a diagnostic manual of phobias: Bread-Making Failure Disorder, characterized by an extreme aversion to kneading dough and/or a fear of producing loaves with the texture of rubber, the weight of granite and the aroma of burnt fiberboard.
OK, even if the comparison to bungee jumping is a leap, the dread over bread is real. In this modern age of too little time and too many tasks, working with dough has acquired an almost mysterious air, something that seems better left to bakers with an artisanal touch.
But I am here to say: Rise up, fellow doughphobes. There is nothing to fear except a waste of flour, yeast and water. At least for me, my demons were banished with the aid of -- snob alert! -- the dough cycle of my long-retired bread machine.
Determined, I sat down with several cookbooks for bread machines, reading not just the recipes but the chapters on ingredients, chemistry and using the dough cycle only, baking the bread in the oven rather than in the machine.
Don't be afraid, one book urged, to intervene during the first few minutes of the kneading phase, if you need to nudge a wayward dough into line. "Our grandmothers developed a feel for dough through experience," wrote authors Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts in their 1995 "Rustic European Breads From Your Bread Machine." "They knew when the dough they were kneading by hand on a board was too dry or too wet Turn the kneading over to a bread machine, and you can only develop this feel by opening the lid and pinching the dough as it kneads."
That was a revelation. The bread machine's manual had implied that lifting the lid would invite disaster. But intervention only made sense. As Eckhardt and Butts pointed out, variables such as humidity, altitude and ingredients make it impossible to guarantee a consistent dough.
Generally, I'm comfortable around the kitchen. Over the years, I've become increasingly willing to improvise if I don't like or have a particular ingredient. Until recently, though, none of that sense of adventure applied to bread.
But the more often I lifted the machine's lid, the more confident I became. Touching the dough taught me how it should feel; experience taught me how it should look. If the moisture level was off, it was apparent within the first few minutes. I looked forward to testing the dough for dryness or stickiness, adding small amounts of water or flour in search of that certain sheen and elasticity that I had come to recognize.
About half the time during the dough cycle, I don't have to do anything except look. The mixture comes together just as it should, forming a tight ball by the end of the cycle's 20-minute kneading period. If I do interfere, I have learned not to overdo it. As little as a teaspoon of water can cure a crumbly mess. It's rare that I add even a tablespoon of liquid, and I can count on one hand how often I've had to use that much flour to fix a too-wet dough.
Then comes the fun: extracting the dough from the machine's pan, punching it down to push out the carbon dioxide that formed during the initial rise, pressing it into a ball, letting it rise again for a half-hour or so, shaping it, and then making strategic slashes in the top of the loaf to allow for expansion during baking.
Instead of spending money on dough knives designed for making those slashes, I use a razor blade. But I have invested in a good baking stone ($25 to $30), a pizza peel (about $20) and a squirt bottle (a dollar-store model should do).
The baking stone is a must. It distributes heat evenly and is porous, so it wicks away unwanted moisture that, on a metal pan, can get trapped underneath the loaf, causing problems for the bread's crust and internal texture.
The pizza peel does double duty. Dusted with cornmeal, it serves as a surface for working the dough. The cornmeal's grit then helps the risen loaf slide easily from peel to stone.
The squirt bottle plays a vital role in putting crunch into the crust. Spritzing the dough a couple of times during the first few minutes of baking produces a distinctive crisp exterior. But do so with restraint: Spray too often and/or too late into the baking cycle, and the crust can end up rock-hard and too dark.
In this recipe, the bread machine does the mixing and kneading, but the loaf is shaped by hand, then baked in the oven.
Adapted from "Rustic European Breads," by Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts (Doubleday, 1995).
> Whole-Meal Bread
1 tablespoon bread machine yeast
1 cup bread flour, plus more for the work surface
1/2 cup gluten flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup nonfat powdered milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup total or mixture of rolled oats, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, chopped nuts, raisins or dates, plus optional oats for sprinkling
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1 1/4 cups warm water, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
Coarsely ground cornmeal, for the pizza stone/peel
Put the yeast in the bottom of the dough pan of a bread machine, then add the bread flour, gluten flour, whole-wheat flour, powdered milk and salt; add all or a mixture of the oats and/or seeds, nuts, raisins and dates; then add the cinnamon, if desired, the water, honey and yogurt. Mix using the machine's dough cycle, set on WHOLE-WHEAT, which allows for a longer rise than the BASIC setting.
After 3 or 4 minutes during the dough cycle, open the lid of the machine to check the consistency of the dough; if too much flour is sticking to the sides, use a flexible spatula to recombine the mixture. If the dough looks dry, add a little water (a teaspoon at a time) as needed. If the dough seems wet, add flour in the same fashion.
Once the entire dough cycle is complete (which includes kneading and the first rise), turn the bread out onto a lightly floured surface or the surface of a pizza peel with a light dusting of cornmeal. Punch down the dough, press it into a tight ball and let it rest for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a pizza stone on the middle oven rack; preheat to 400 degrees.
Alternatively, use nonstick cooking oil spray to grease a baking sheet, then line the sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle with a little cornmeal.
Form the dough into an oblong loaf or a 9-inch round loaf. Cover with a dish towel or loosely with plastic wrap and let the loaf rise until it has nearly doubled in bulk (about 30 minutes). Or transfer to the baking sheet; let the loaf rise until it has nearly doubled in bulk. Use your hands to press the sides of the loaf to reshape as needed.
Use a small, sharp knife or a razor blade to cut slashes in the top of the loaf (which allows for necessary expansion during baking), then sprinkle with oats, if desired. Put the loaf in the oven; at this point, if desired, use a spray water bottle to spray the inside of the oven. Close the oven door quickly. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until browned; the loaf should sound hollow when thumped.
Transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting or freezing. After the loaf has been cut, store cut side down on a cutting board.
Makes a 1 1/2 -pound loaf (16 to 18 slices).
Variation: For a 1-pound loaf, use 2 teaspoons bread machine yeast, 2/3 cup bread flour, 1/4 cup gluten flour, 1 cup whole-wheat flour, 1/4 cup nonfat powdered milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup total of any of the following (or a mixture): rolled oats, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, chopped nuts, raisins, pitted dates; 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (if desired), 2/3 cup warm water, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/3 cup plain nonfat yogurt. Follow directions above, including baking temperature and timing.
Per slice (based on 18): 120 calories, 6g protein, 20g carbohydrates, 1g fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, 140mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber, 3g sugar