My Best Bread

I like this technique for a couple reasons: first, it uses an overnight rise that augments the flavor. The difference in taste between an overnight rise and a two-hour rise is like the difference between a pasty tasteless whitebread and your grandmother's best cheesecake: there's just no comparison. Second, the interlude between the preparation of the dough and the actual baking splits the cleanup workload in half, so (perhaps just by an illusion) it seems to take considerably less effort than any other method that I've tried.

This isn't so much about a particular type of bread (and it's a far stretch away from being a recipe); it is rather about the process of breadmaking. The quantity of ingredients tend to "work themselves out" as the method unfolds — since breadmaking is about the right stickiness and "doughiness" you end up gradually adding sufficient flour to make everything copasetic. The actual variety of bread you bake depends upon what you add along the way (the list to "choose your bread" is a bit further down) but the basic method stays the same.


The Hardware

A coffee mug
A microwave oven
A kitchen thermometer
Two plastic bowls, one larger than the other (I use empty Cool Whip containers)
A large glass mixing bowl
An easy to clean hard flat surface (for kneading)
Plastic bags with handles (from the weekly supermarket grocery trip)
A large hand towel
A refrigerator
A bread loaf baking pan
A regular oven


Permanent Ingredients

Always keep the following ingredients in stock:
Flour; Salt; Sugar; Dry nonfat milk; Yeast Cakes; Safflower or Corn or Canola oil
Cornmeal (if making your own Yeast Cakes)

I make my own Yeast Cakes, here's how:
Start this process in the evening when you are going to bed; it takes about 15 minutes. Take a plastic bowl (one that has a lid that fits I use an empty Cool Whip container) and put in a half cup of Cornmeal, 2 heaping Tbls of flour, and a package of dry yeast; stir the dry ingredients. Take a coffee mug and fill it half way with dry milk and then half way with cold water; stir (in other words you end up with half a coffee mug of cold milk). Place in the microwave and heat until the milk bubbles up to the top of the mug (in mine this takes a minute and a half). Remove from the microwave and stir in 2 Tbls of butter. After the butter melts stir in a couple of ice cubes. Take the milk's temperature it should be 90F or less. Add the warm milk to the dry ingredients and stir the mixture will be very runny and soupy. Now add more cornmeal gradually while continuing to stir until the mixture thickens just enough to start pulling away from the sides. Cover loosely and let stand overnight.

In the morning refrigerate the yeast cakes. This recipe makes 6 yeast cakes; the next day take a knife and slice the mixture in an asterisk pattern to make six wedges. The yeast cakes will keep in the refrigerator for a week; after that it is best to freeze them they keep for a couple of months in the freezer.


Here We Go!

The actual amount of effort-time required to make this bread is around an hour, including clean-up. Wall time though is a full day (24 hours); if you want your bread for Sunday morning then start on Saturday morning.

Take a coffee mug and fill it half way with water; microwave briefly (the water should be 90F warm: in my microwave this takes 20 seconds). Add a Tbl of sugar and a yeast cake and stir to dissolve the yeast. If the water fails to bubble after a couple of minutes then your yeast is dead as a doornail. If your yeast is alive then we're making a "sponge" next this is a gooey flour-based foundation that furnishes the yeast with a head-start.

Place a cup of flour into the smaller plastic bowl with the yeasty water and stir thoroughly. Add a tsp of flour at a time while continuing to stir until the mixture is thick but not yet pulling away from the sides. Cover lightly. The sponge needs to sit for a half hour or so while the yeast grows it is happiest in a warm water bath, so take the larger plastic bowl and heat some water to around 95F to 115F. Rest the bowl with the sponge mixture inside the warm water bowl.

In around a half hour see how your sponge is doing . . . it should have almost doubled in size, but if it is lazy then rewarm the bath water and allow it more time. Patience here pays off extra; a nice vigorous sponge makes the kneading friendlier.


Optional Ingredients (choose your bread)

Olives and Dill (*) (a)
Raisins and Sugar (b)
Cheese and Jalapenos (a)
Brown Sugar and Cinnamon (b)
Egg and Poppy Seeds (*) (a, b)
Toasted Sesame Seeds (*) (a, b)
Marjoram (*) and Oregano (*) (a)
Cornmeal (*) and Caraway Seeds (*) (a)
White onions (a)
Cooked Yam and Pumpkin Spice (b)


Mixing and Kneading

Once your sponge is ready take a large glass bowl and add a couple cups of flour and either a tsp of salt (a above) or a Tbl of sugar (b above) or both (a, b) and any dry spice indicated by (*). Stir the dry ingredients. Take your coffee mug and fill it half way with dry milk and then half way with cold water; stir (making half a mug of cold milk). Place in the microwave and heat until the milk bubbles up to the top of the mug (about a minute and a half in my microwave). Stir in a couple of ice cubes; after they melt stir in either an egg (if that was the bread you chose) or water to fill the mug.

Dump and clean scoop the sponge into the dry ingredients and give it a brief stir. Now add your mug of liquid to the dry ingredients and stir thoroughly the dough should be quite tacky. If it is too runny add some more flour a Tbl at a time. Flour your kneading surface and don't be timid: use lots and lots of flour. This is also the point where your kitchen and your clothes will get "dusted" it's smart to clear off the chotchkas and don an old shirt or an apron. My method differs from other's in that they only lightly dust their hands and board with flour while kneading; I start instead with a "wet" dough and allow it to absorb as much flour in the kneading process as it desires. When you finish kneading you can put the leftover flour in a plastic container for the next time you bake; flour is a kitchen recyclable and there's no need to be shy here. Scoop the dough onto the kneading surface and sprinkle a generous amount of flour on top of it. Knead for seven minutes, at least. Kneading is very therapeutic when done properly; if you need some pointers visit:

Extra ingredients from above that weren't (*) dry spices (Olives, Raisins and Sugar, Cheese and Jalapenos, Brown Sugar and Cinnamon, White Onions, or Yam and Pumpkin Spice) need to be added at this point by creating a dough roll. Make sure you still have plenty of flour on the kneading surface and press your dough flat to around a half-inch thickness. Spread the additional ingredients atop the dough, roll the dough up (only once!), and then knead lightly for another minute or so. Don't worry if your additional ingredients clump together or fall out of the ends. Avoid the urge to flatten and roll again as your bread will come out too tough and chewy. The dough doesn't mind being pushed around and pressed in, as in kneading, but it screams and hollers when you stretch it.

That's pretty much all of the work, outside of cleaning up. Now of course your dough needs to rise: it develops the most taste with a slow rise in the refrigerator. Take one of your plastic bags and poke holes in the bottom; you need maybe half a dozen small holes basically an escape for the extra carbon-dioxide that the yeast exhales. Then take a Tbl of oil in your hands and rub it over the insides of the bottom of the bag. Place the dough in the bag and give the bag a spin to twist it closed. Invert this bag inside of a second plastic bag. Take a hand towel, soak it wet with water, wring it just slightly, and place it on top of the dough bag inside of the second bag. Tie the handles of the outer bag closed and place in the refrigerator.
Hey, clean-up time.

After 10 to 16 hours revisit that ball of dough in the refrigerator and press out some of the carbon-dioxide. Leave the dough bagged, but take the towel and innermost bag out and squeeze down the dough bag, pretty much back to its original size. Place it back inside the outer bag, wet and wring slightly the towel again, place it on top of the dough bag, re-tie the handles of the outer bag, and return it to the refrigerator. Pleasant dreams!

In the morning it's time to bake. Oil and flour the bread baking pan, remove the dough from the refrigerator, and press it down into the pan. It will be rather firm and resistant to your pressure. Remember: pushing, not stretching! Now you need to let it warm to room temperature (and rise a bit) but you must cover it tightly. I happen to have a Tupperware lid that fits just nicely over the baking pan, but you can also stretch a piece of plastic wrap over it. Leave it in a warm place to rise even though the numbers don't go that low, I can turn my gas oven on just slightly and it will warm to 80F. After letting the bread sit for a half hour to 45 minutes remove the cover, score the top of the loaf, and bake either at:
350F for one hour - or -
375F for 45 minutes.

Bake breads with moist additives (olives, yams, and onions for example) cooler but for a longer duration. With other breads you can engage the hotter temperature for a shorter bake. When you think the bread is ready remove it from the oven and take it's temperature with a thermometer inserted diagonally in from the middle edge: it is ready at 170F to 180F. Let it cool in the baking pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, run a knife around the edges and remove from the pan, and allow the loaf to cool for at least another 15 minutes, although you can let it cool longer if you have the self-control of a Jedi warrior :-)

I am especially grateful to the contributors to the Usenet newsgroup alt.bread.recipes.