Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread

Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread

My dear friend Virginia and I have started cooking together recently. Whether the meal is simple or complex, I treasure the experience, the knowledge, and the stories that are shared. Cooking is never as simple as it seems. Taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a meal is a powerful thing. Preparing food for someone is one of the first and most primal acts of caring for others. It is a deeply meaningful and nurturing act that is as powerful today as it was eons ago. Cooking with someone creates a meaningful experience that is more than just the food involved. It is a transfer of knowledge and skills passed down through the ages and refined through a lifetime.

At its heart, cooking is about taking a few simple ingredients and creating a meal. This is true magic, taking seemingly nothing and transforming it into that which sustains life. This week my friend Virginia and I made bread. While I have tried a few bread variations before, the technique and feel of this experience was more valuable than a thousand cookbooks. Virginia talked about the look and feel of the ingredients. While I will try and give measurements here, this is an experience that must be done with your hands, as what you are creating is so much more than just numbers and ingredients.

More than just Bread

Talking with Virginia, it’s easy to see how a recipe is more than just the food it creates. This technique for bread making came from her mother-in-law and was passed on to her as she joined this new family. In turn, it is something that she always made for her own family as she raised her children and grandchildren. Homemade bread was a staple at holiday dinners and the recipe made so much that everyone got to take home a loaf. Something as simple as a loaf of bread can hold such deep meaning and emotion when it is tied to family and time spent together. When you bake this bread, it is more than just bread you create. It is lasting memories and connections, carried down from generations ago to the generations yet to come.

Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread
Food is more than just ingredients.

Simple Yet Powerful

Start with about half of a stick of butter (¼ cup). Let the butter sit for awhile until it is room temperature. You want it to smoothly and evenly mix in with the other ingredients. Before you begin mixing ingredients you’ll want to activate or ‘proof’ the yeast.

Virginia tells me, “The most important thing to remember when baking bread is that yeast is alive. You have to nurture it in order for it to grow. Too hot or too cold can kill the yeast.”

To activate the yeast, Virginia pours one packet (or 2 ¼ teaspoons) of dry active yeast into a coffee mug. Sprinkle just a pinch of sugar over the yeast to feed it. Then, fill the coffee mug halfway with very warm water from the faucet and give it a quick stir. The water must be warm enough to activate the yeast, but not too hot, or the yeast may die. The feel of the water will tell you.

Virginia: “You must be able to touch the water, it can’t be scalding.”

Try and keep the mug warm as well. If the mug is too cold simply hold it in your hands a minute, creating a warm and nurturing environment for your yeast to grow. The yeast is ready when it ‘bubbles’ to the top of the mug.

Don’t Rush

Virginia reminds me, “Don’t rush it. Give it time to grow.”

When making this bread, don’t be overly concerned with timing or measurements. Feel it out and enjoy the process. While your yeast is activating, heat a medium pot of water on the stove. Don’t let it boil. Like before, this water shouldn’t be too hot to touch. Just pleasantly warm for the yeast to thrive. Once your yeast is activated and the water warmed, it’s time to start mixing your ingredients. Your butter should be room temperature by now. In a large stock pot, pour over the butter, most of a 5 lb. bag of Ceresota Flour. This flour is natural and unbleached, so it makes a delicious and nutrient filled homemade bread. I would estimate about 4 ½ lbs. at first, saving the remaining ½ lb. for dusting the table to knead.

Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread
You have never kneaded dough until you’ve tackled this monster!

Kneading the Dough

This is such a big recipe that it must be mixed in a stockpot, as I have yet to find a mixing bowl large enough! Sprinkle some sugar over the top to feed the yeast. About a tablespoon should do it. Also, add just a pinch of salt. When Virginia and I made this, I measured by cupping my hand and filling just the very center of my palm. This ends up being about a teaspoon. Then, pour in your yeast and add just enough of the warm water to form a dough. When the dough is combined, dump it out onto a floured table or counter top to knead. Let me tell you, you have never kneaded bread until you’ve tackled this 5 lb. monster.

Virginia was much better at kneading than me. Even after flouring my hands, I still ended up with dough sticking to me all over. The trick to kneading it is to lift a corner of dough up and over, onto itself, then press down and out, mixing the dough firmly into the center. Turn the dough one quarter turn each time so that your are always working with a new corner. As the dough is kneaded it will become stronger and more firm. This helps the dough to hold it’s shape as it rises. When the dough feels firm enough (after about 5 minutes of kneading) add a little oil to your stock pot and rub it along the bottom and sides to grease. Place your dough back into the stockpot and set it in a warm place to rise. Cover the dough with a clean towel and wrap it with another. This provides a warm, nurturing environment for your dough. Once the dough is all tucked in to rise, your can prepare your baking pans. This recipe makes about 5 loaves of bread, but you can use a pie pan for circular loves as well.

Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread
All tucked in!

Shaping the Loaves

Virginia: “I usually make bread for the holidays, then everyone can take home one of the extra loaves.”

Oil your pans well to prevent sticking, making sure to rub oil into the corners. Your dough is done rising once it has doubled in size (about an hour).

When ready, dump your risen dough onto a lightly floured table or counter top. Knead just a few times to push all of the air bubbles out. Then cut the dough into 5 even sections. For loaf pans, pull the two short ends over the top, just a little. Then pull up the long end closest to you. Use that end to roll the loaf up into a log. Place the shaped dough into a loaf pan and cut slits across the top. This allows the dough to stretch as it rises and vent as it bakes, as well as looking nice. Let the dough rise another half hour to forty five minutes. Don’t rush this part, or your bread will be rather dense, instead of light and fluffy. Once the dough has doubled in size, it is ready to bake. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Your bread should be golden brown on top and make a hollow sound when tapped.

Cooking with Virginia -Homemade Bread
Nothing is better than fresh homemade bread!

Look, Feel, and Sound

Virginia explains, “If the bread doesn’t sound hollow, there is too much moisture in there and it needs to bake longer”

Once your loaves are golden brown and sound hollow, turn them out onto a wire rack for cooking. Be sure to cover the loaves with a clean towel while they cool, to keep moisture in. Homemade bread is best eaten fresh, but to save a loaf for later, wait until it has cooled completely, then wrap it tightly in plastic and cover with aluminum foil to freeze. Loaves that have become a bit dry after a few days, taste excellent when sliced and lightly toasted!

Virginia:  “You know that you’ve done a good job if the bubbles within a slice of bread are evenly spaced. That means it was kneaded well!”

Making bread with Virginia has been a great experience and I can’t wait to practice this simple yet delicious bread recipe at home.

Corn Torillas

Corn Tortillas

I have been trying for some time to start making homemade tortillas. My first few attempts did not turn out quite right, but I have finally found a way to make delicious corn tortillas at home. When I started out I was using regular flour, which was probably most of the problem. Switching over to a corn flour that has been processed with lime has made all the difference.

Thin Sheets of Dough on a Hot Griddle

The dough for these tortillas is incredibly simple to make. It requires only three ingredients; Corn Flour, Water, and Salt. The corn flour must be processed with lime and not the kind you would use for making corn bread. Look on the ingredient label to be sure you are getting the right kind. Sprinkle a ¼ teaspoon or so of Salt over 2 cups of the Corn Flour. Pour in 1 ¼ cup Water and mix together. If needed add a little more water so that the dough sticks together, only a teaspoon at a time.

The way that you roll out the dough for tortillas will make a huge difference in how they taste. Place a ball of dough, just enough for one tortilla, in between two sheets of wax paper. Roll the dough out in a circle, as thin as you can. Stack the tortillas as you roll them out, keeping a sheet of wax paper in between each one. Heat a griddle on the stove with just a little oil to keep the tortillas from sticking to the pan. When the griddle is hot, carefully peel a tortilla away from the wax paper, being careful not to rip it. Cook each tortilla for 15 to 30 seconds on each side, flipping the tortilla as needed. When you start to see a few brown marks on each side the tortilla should be done. Stack the cooked tortillas between paper towels and cover with a kitchen towel to keep them soft. Enjoy your tortillas as tacos, burritos, or enchiladas. These Chicken Avocado Burritos would be especially good with homemade tortillas! Dip into a spicy Mexican soup or cut into slices and fry them for tortilla chips.

Corn Tortillas

2 cups Corn Flour, processed with lime

¼ teaspoon Salt

1¼ cup Water

Mix together Corn Flour, Salt and Water. Separate dough for individual tortillas and roll very thin, between sheets of wax paper. Put a little oil on a griddle or skillet and heat. When the griddle is hot, cook each tortilla for 15 to 30 seconds per side, flipping occasionally. Stack between paper towels and cover to keep from drying out. Enjoy!

Pretzel Bread

Pretzel Bread

Growing up I was always obsessed with pretzel bread. It was the one thing I always asked for when my family went to the bakery. I couldn’t get enough! Well, the other day, I discovered that I could make my own pretzel bread right here at home! Boy am I in trouble because I do not have the will power to stop eating this. It is so good!

Fresh Bread Loaf… Meet Soft Pretzel

Just like the name suggests, pretzel bread is about halfway between a warm, delicious, hand baked loaf of bread and a fresh, soft pretzel. Making this bread is a four step process. The first step is to mix the dough. Start with 3 cups Flour. Add 1 teaspoon Salt and 1 teaspoon Brown Sugar. Next mix in 2 ¼ teaspoons Yeast (one packet) and 1 cup Warm Water. If you’d like, you can proof the yeast first by mixing it with half of the warm water in a separate bowl, and adding a pinch of sugar. If the yeast starts to foam within 5 minutes, then it is active and can be mixed into the flour, along with the other half cup of Warm Water. I usually proof my yeast first, but with this recipe, I simply mixed it all together and it turned out just fine. Don’t forget to add in the 1/8 cup Butter, at room temperature so that it blends well with the other ingredients.

When your dough is fully mixed, turn it out on a clean, floured surface. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it is springy but not sticky. Then, place it in a clean, greased bowl and turn the dough over, inside the bowl to coat evenly. Cover with a clean towel and set it in a warm place to rise for 1 hour.

Forming the Rolls

Step two begins after the dough has risen. In a small pot on the stove, mix together the additional 4 ½ cups Water, ¼ cup Salt, and ½ cup Baking Soda. Heat these to a simmer as you shape your bread. First, press down into the dough with your fist to deflate it. Then, turn the dough out onto a clean, floured surface. You can shape the bread however you like. I usually see them shaped like small French loaves, but to try and keep myself from eating too much at once, I like to make them into small dinner rolls by simply rolling them into balls. Remember to cut a few slits on top.

Dipping the Dough and Baking

Now go ahead and preheat the oven to 350 degrees and get a greased baking pan ready. Our third step is to take the shaped rolls or loaves one at a time and drop them into the simmering baking soda and salt water mixture. Let them simmer for about 30 seconds each, turning so that both sides are in the water at some point. Using a large ladle, scoop the dough out of the pot, drain the water, and set them on the greased baking tray. When each roll or loaf is done, brush the tops with 1 beaten egg and sprinkle with sea salt. I try not to go overboard with the sea salt, a little bit goes a long way.

Finally bake your pretzel bread at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. If you are making loaves and not rolls, they may need a little more time. You will know the rolls are done when they have that distinctive brown color with a crisp outer shell. Enjoy your delicious pretzel bread! And I hope you have more self restraint with them than I do. I’m off to make another batch already!

Pretzel Bread

3 cups Flour

1 tablespoon Brown Sugar

1 teaspoon Salt

2 ¼ teaspoon Yeast

1/8 cup Butter

1 cup Warm Water

½ cup Baking Soda

4 ½ cups additional Water

¼ cup additional Salt

1 Egg, beaten

Sea Salt

Mix Flour, 1 teaspoon Salt, Brown Sugar, Yeast, 1 cup Warm Water, and Butter all together to make the dough. Knead of a clean, floured surface about 5 minutes. Place in a clean, greased bowl and let rise 1 hour. Mix 4 ½ cups Water, 1/3 cup Salt, and ½ cup Baking Soda together in a small stove pot. Let simmer. Preheat oven to 350 and prepare a greased baking sheet. Deflate dough and shape as desired, cutting slits to vent. Dip the dough into the simmering salt water and baking soda mixture and let cook for about 30 seconds, flipping halfway through. Place dough onto the greased baking sheet and brush with 1 beaten Egg. Sprinkle tops with a pinch of Sea Salt and bake 12 to 15 minutes, until the bread is crusty and brown on the outside. Enjoy!

Sweet Bread Braid

Sweet Bread Braid

For a delicious twist on normal bread baking, this week I’m making a Sweet Bread Braid. This is a rich egg bread with a sweet taste. It has an impressive appearance for holidays and parties and is delicious as an everyday treat. So far this is my husband’s favorite bread recipe, it is always the one he asks for. It is so rich and sweet for a savory bread recipe, that I usually skip the butter and eat this one plain. The braid is so much fun to make and gives such a fancy appearance with little actual effort.

Meaningful Treats

In Jewish Traditions the braided bread is called Challah and each strand has meaning. They are made for festivals to symbolize love and unity among other things. This bread came to be used at Passover to symbolize manna from heaven and was modeled off of decorative German sweet breads. Braided bread has a long history and tradition and has been used as symbolism and decoration for centuries.

To make this bread, start with 1/3 cup Warm Water. Around 110 degrees in ideal, but I find that letting the hot water run from the faucet for a few seconds usually give me just the right temperature, without having to use a thermometer. Add in 2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast or 1 Yeast Packet and stir. Let this rise in a warm place for about 5 minutes to proof or activate the yeast. If you don’t see any change in a few minutes, try sprinkling a pinch of sugar in with the yeast.

While the yeast is proofing, mix 1-1/2 cup Flour, ¼ cup Sugar, and 1 teaspoon Salt together in a large bowl. Add to this 1 beaten Egg, 2/3 cup Warm Water, 2 tablespoons Oil, 2 tablespoons Honey, and the proofed yeast mixture, which should be bubbly. When these are thoroughly combined, add in 1-1/2 to 2 cups of Flour, a little at a time. When you can mix in no more flour, pour the rest on a clean surface and turn the dough out to knead.

Kneading and Braiding

To knead the dough, sprinkle it with flour and form it into a ball. Press this ball down, reform it, and turn it over to repeat. If the dough starts to stick to your hands or the surface sprinkle more flour over it. Knead about 5 minutes or until dough is tacky but not sticky on the outside.  Then place the dough into a clean, greased bowl and turn to coat the outside. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for an hour.

After an hour the dough should be about double in size. Press down into the center with your fist to deflate, and turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough into three even sections and roll each section out into a log of approximately the same length. Lay the lengths of dough next to each other in three straight lines, just touching. Gently braid the lengths of dough together, being careful not to stretch or smash the dough. Tuck each end of the braid slightly underneath and press them gently together to seal.

Place dough on a greased baking sheet and cover with a towel. Let rise 1 hour, then bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Brush with melted butter and serve!

Sweet Bread Braid

3 to 3-1/2 cups Flour

1 cup Warm Water

2-1/2 teaspoons Yeast

¼ cup Sugar

1 teaspoon Salt

1 Egg, beaten

2 tablespoon Oil

2 tablespoon Honey

 

Proof Yeast in 1/3 cup of the Warm Water. Mix 1-1/2 cup of the Flour, ¼ cup Sugar and 1 teaspoon Salt. Add in the remaining Warm Water, proofed Yeast, Egg, Oil, and Honey. Slowly stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a firm dough. Turn the dough out on a well floured surface and knead about 5 minutes until dough is tacky but not sticky. Place in a greased bowl and turn to coat. Let rise in a warm place 1 hour. When dough is about doubled in size, push down with your fist to deflate and turn out on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into three even pieces and roll into strands of equal length. Place strands side by side and braid together gently. Press ends lightly together and tuck under to hold. Place dough on a greased baking sheet and cover with a towel. Let rise 1 hour in a warm place, and then bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until golden brown on top. Brush with butter and serve!

French Bread

French Bread

Fresh, homemade bread. It’s one of the oldest traditions in society and was the basis of sustaining life throughout human history. French bread is one of the most beautiful and most basic. There are endless recipes and variations to create bread, but at its core that process is surprisingly simple. Have you ever experienced making fresh bread before? It is extremely satisfying to know that, with only a few minutes of mixing and a few hours of waiting, you have created something delicious and nourishing for your family. A staple of life.

Baking bread used to be a daily task, like washing dishes. Now there are many people who have never made a loaf of bread before and don’t know how it’s done. If you’ve never done it before, bread baking can seem like a daunting task. There are many misconceptions about bread baking that make it seem like a great culinary feat to achieve. In truth, it is incredibly simple.

Three Ingredients

At its core, bread is made from just three simple ingredients. Flour, Water, and Yeast. Flour is the structure. Water is added to turn it into dough, and yeast is what makes it rise. From here you can add sugar to make it rise faster, salt to balance the sugar and prevent over rising milk or butter makes it creamy. Honey can make it sweet. Eggs will make it rich. The combinations go on. But at its heart, only three ingredients are truly needed.

Measure 1 cup Flour to begin. Mix in 2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast. If you have individual packets of yeast, this is the equivalent of one packet. Next add 1 cup Warm Water. This water must be warm enough to activate the yeast, but not too hot, or it will kill the yeast. The standard temperature is between 95 and 115 degrees. I find an easy way to do this without a thermometer is by turning my faucet all the way to hot and letting it run a few seconds until it heats up. As long as it is very warm (I usually wait to see a little steam), but not scalding, you should be fine.

Starting the Dough

Mixing in the warm water should create a soft dough that is thicker than batter, but not firm enough to be kneaded with your hands. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place for one hour. My favorite time to make bread is on days I am also making soup. Not only are they perfect together, but I let my bread rise on the counter next to where the stock is slowly simmering. This creates the perfect rising temperature for the dough with no extra effort. An easy alternative to this is to set your oven to warm and place the dough on top of it. This way you can make bread even in winter by creating a small warm place for it to rise.

After about an hour, you should see a difference in your dough. It should have bubbles or be ‘poofy’ at this point. If it isn’t, turn up the heat, make the rising area a little warmer and give it about 20 to 30 more minutes. When it is bubbly the yeast has activated and we are ready to finish the dough. Take the remaining 2 cups Flour and add in a little at a time. You probably won’t use all of the flour, especially if you are mixing by hand like I do. When your dough is thick, sticks together, and isn’t easily mixing in more flour, you are ready to knead.

Kneading

Sprinkle the remaining flour on a clean surface and turn the dough onto it. To knead the dough, sprinkle some flour on top and over your hands. Press down to flatten the dough, then fold it over on itself and flatten again. Repeat this process, turning the dough occasionally. If it sticks a little to the surface, or your hands, sprinkle more flour over it and work that flour into the dough. You are basically making the dough into a ball and then flattening that ball repeatedly. Most recipes say to knead for about 5 minutes, but I usually don’t see the need to time it. When you can’t work anymore flour into it, the dough starts to feel slightly firm and it is not sticking anymore, it’s ready.

Use a clean bowl that is greased on the sides with oil or shortening. Set your dough into this and turn it a few times to grease the outside. Cover the bowl with a towel and place it back in the warm place to rise 1 hour more, until it is roughly double in size. Push the dough down with your fist and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. This is the time to shape your dough depending on how you would like to bake it.

Shaping

Most French breads are rolled out into a log and placed on a baking sheet. For this recipe I like to place mine in a loaf pan because it holds the dough well and takes up less space in my fridge. Cover or wrap your dough in plastic and place it in the fridge. This lets the natural flavors of the bread develop. If you are in a hurry, you can skip this step and set your bread to rise for the last time before baking it. I usually let my bread rest in the fridge for 6 to 8 hours before baking. The longer you let it rest the more developed and ‘yeasty’ of a flavor you will get. Usually I will start a loaf of bread in the morning and take it out to rise about and hour and a half before dinner, or I will start one in the evening and take it out to rise and bake the next morning.

When you are ready, take the bread out and place it back in a warm place, covered only with a towel, to rise 1 last hour. Place a bowl or baking pan half filled with water into your oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. The water will create steam in the oven, making the bread moist on the inside with a crisp crust. Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Congratulation! With a little effort and some patience, you have created a beautiful homemade loaf of bread. Enjoy!

French Bread

3 cups Flour

2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast

1 cup Warm Water

Combine 1 cup Flour, 2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast, and 1 cup Warm Water. Let rise, covered, in a warm place for 1 hour. Mix in the remaining flour a little at a time, until no more can be easily mixed in. Spread the rest of the flour onto a clean surface and turn out dough to knead, about 5 minutes, working more of the remaining flour in as you go. Set in a greased bowl, covered, and let rise 1 hour more. Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface to shape. Place on baking tray or in loaf pan. Cover and let rest in the fridge 4-12 hours. Return to a warm place and let rise 1 hour more. Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes with a pan of water in the oven for steam.