Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In which I remember my bread-baking origins

I've been baking bread for more than 10 years, but my hobby has changed dramatically since I first started in high school. My mother bought a bread machine when I was younger, and I remember delicious, fluffy loaves coming out of it. The only issues were that the paddle left a big hole in the bread, and it tended to be a bit soggy because it had a cooling off period inside the machine where it would basically steam itself after the baking cycle was done.

My family was crazy about challah, the sweet braided Jewish egg bread, typically covered with poppy or sesame seeds (poppy seed were our favorite). The bread was really expensive, so we tended to eat it as a treat. My mother bought a few bread machine recipe books at one point, and it suddenly occurred to me that I could actually make challah for a fraction of the price of buying it.

I honestly don't remember my first attempt to make challah, but I suspect it went well or I may not have stuck with it. The recipe I used was extremely easy and forgiving, and yielded excellent results despite my occasional mistakes or my forgetfulness. Since the machine mixed the dough, the only thing I needed to do was braid it, let it rise, do a quick egg wash with a sprinkling of seeds, and stick it in the oven. After 30 or 40 minutes, we almost always pulled a hot, sweet, delicious poppy-seed covered loaf from the oven, and my family would devour it eagerly, most of us with a huge spread of "butter" (I'm a child of the 80's - as far as we were concerned, margarine was butter and we used the terms completely interchangeably).

I do vaguely remember my later attempts to diversify my portfolio, most of which failed miserably. Challah was probably halfway between a cake and a bread, and the eggs and copious amount of sugar made for an excellent texture despite my lack of technique. Making real bread, on the other hand, was a disaster, leading mostly to what my dad called doorstops. I especially liked whole wheat bread, which has an even greater tendency towards heavy, dense results.

Over the years, my skills have been honed quite a bit, thanks in large part to the likes and dislikes of my Italian husband who is very particular about his bread and continues to offer me plenty of encouragement - and who will eat what I bake no matter what. I eventually gave up my bread machine for a mixer (since I never used the machine to do the actual baking anyway), then acquired an even bigger more powerful mixer after I burned out the engine on my standard-sized one (but I really miss the beautiful yellow color of the old one).

I also purchased a fibrament baking stone, which I love dearly, and which I honestly believe has helped compensate for my 70's era electric oven.

Thanks to a few books and a few websites (see sidebar), I learned a LOT of new techniques, and I've come up with a really basic "recipe" I'm using these days for some simple, white Italian-style bread with what I hope is good flavor, light holey crumb, and a crunchy crust. My husband seems to approve, and I'll take whatever appreciation I can get.

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