Baking bread (or thinking about it)
I love to bake bread.
It's a very relaxing thing to do. It's messy enough to remind you of when you were little and played with mudpies and Play-Doh. It's a mindless thing, or at least the kneading part is. It can even help to get out some frustration, by banging the dough about (a good way of developing the gluten).
The problem is, it can be so hard to get good results. And, the other factor is that in Switzerland it's too easy to just get great bread from the stores. Even Migros, the biggest supermarket chain here, has some great bread, including the totally addictive Crusta-Baguette, a knobby, whole wheat and seed-filled (pumpkin, linseed, etc) loaf of goodness.
There are two major factors that contribute to the quality of home baked bread: the flour, and the baking conditions. The flour has to have enough gluten to develop that stringy texture. Except for some quickbreads, a bread with a crumby, cake-like texture is no good at all. Finding good bread flour is surprisingly hard. U.S. "Bread Flour" is sort of ok, but you still have to work it hard. Here in Switzerland I use Zopf Mehl. Zopf is a traditional white braided bread, where that stringy texture is critical. So Zopf Mehl sort of works okay.
Whole wheat flour is even more difficult to get right. For one thing, while white flour sort of keeps indefinitely, whole wheat flour can go rancid. I've encountered bitter tasting, or even on one occasion rotten-tasting whole wheat flour that had just been purchased. I keep my whole wheat and other grain flour (rye, buckwheat) in the freezer.
The other factor is the baking conditions. Basically you need to be able to build up a lot of humidity to obtain that crackly crust. And this can be amazingly hard, in my experience. I have tried the pan of boiling water trick, pouring a cup of water on the floor of the oven trick, and spraying vigorously with a water sprayer trick. None are really that satisfactory, though the last one seems to work the best. Of course, it would be great to have a nice, steamy brick oven....but that would indicate the sort of serious commitment to bread baking that I'm not sure I want to make.
In the meantime, there are those quickbreads that are a snap to assemble, and come out the way you want without hassle while giving you the satisfaction, and wonderful smells, of baking bread at home. One of my favorite quickbread type things is popovers. They're great on their own, or to eat with roast chicken, or scrambled eggs, or butter and jam, or whatever you like. And they only take 45 minutes from the getting out the bowl stage to in your mouth moment.
- 2 cups all-purpose or regular flour (not bread flour or Zopf Mehl)
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 2 Tbs. melted unsalted butter (melt in microwave)
- 1 tsp. salt
Sift flour (though to be honest I often skip this step and it's fine). Mix in salt.
Beat the eggs and milk, and slowly add to the flour, mixing. A few lumps are fine - don't over mix. Add butter.
Pour the mixture evenly into a 12-cup non-stick or buttered muffin tin. (There are special popover tins, but I don't make popovers often enough to justify buying this. Muffin tin works fine. I have the wonderful silicone-coated ones from Chicago Baking Company.) If you have huge lumps in the batter just fish them out with a fork.
Bake at 220 degrees C / 450 degrees F for 40 minutes, from a cold oven. Don't bake in a preheated oven or it won't "pop". Start peeking after 30 minutes until they are done to the stage you like. I like them just golden brown on top and softish inside.