Baking Basic Bread
I absolutely adore baking bread. To me, there is nothing more magical than the mixing of yeast and water and flour and sugar and salt to make a loaf of something nourishing and nutritious. If you have only had “Wonder Bread”-type bread, then you don’t know how fabulous real bread can be.
I usually invoke Isis before I start a batch of bread. To me, Isis is the preeminent goddess of bread. According to Patricia Telesco, the Egyptians were the originators of leavening to make bread rise and that they had over thirty different kinds of breads. (Telesco, 53). They were also adept at brewing beer, which led to Isis being known as the “Lady of Bread, Lady of Beer”, among many other titles. (Seawright, 1) However, other cultures had deities of bread, or at least the hearth and oven, notably the Greeks and Romans, with the Goddesses Hestia, Demeter, Vesta, Ceres, Empanda or Panda, Fornax. The Celts celebrated Brede as a goddess of the hearth, so if you work with Celtic deities or you want to work with Brede because it’s Her month, then by all means, invoke that Celtic of fire and poetry. Baking bread is nothing else than poetry in the form of dough, in my most humble opinion!
If it’s a cold day, I turn the heat up in the house and preheat the oven a few hours before I even start the baking process. The bread won’t rise if it’s not warm in the room where you’re baking. Atmospheric pressure also plays a role, although not as much as it does with cakes. But you might want to keep that in mind and try to bake on a high-pressure day. Your bread will rise much better.
The first thing I do is a thorough cleaning of my work surface and gather all my tools. I used to have a really nice baking mat for my counter-top with measurements for pies and other pastries but it was lost in one of my many moves and I have never replaced it. And I don’t have a bread machine or even an electric mixer. Everything is done by hand. If you have an electric mixer, by all means, use it – it’ll make beating the eggs and mixing the milk-egg mixture into the flour-yeast mixture that much easier. I do admit that my arthritis is making these tasks a bit painful in my old age! Maybe this is the year I break down and get myself some power tools! But right now, I can still do all the beating and mixing by hand. And I absolutely adore kneading the bread with my own two hands, although I do know that many mixers have a bread hook for kneading bread which will do it in minutes!
The recipe I use I developed myself. It’s based on the one my mother used – she used to bake four loaves of bread every other day to feed our family of eight. Her recipe used dry milk and Rapid-Rise yeast. Because my recipe is an adaptation of her recipe, it also uses Rapid-Rise (quick-rising) yeast but it works just fine with Active Dry Yeast – I have used both interchangeably in this recipe. I also use white sugar in this recipe. Lots of people don’t use white sugar anymore, opting to use honey or brown sugar instead. I almost never use white sugar at all anymore – I even put brown sugar into my coffee. However, adding honey to this recipe really doesn’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried it. It weighs down the dough and changes the flavor considerably. I do have bread recipes that use honey instead of white sugar; this is not one of them. This is simply a basic white bread that is great for sandwiches.
1 package Rapid-Rise (quick-rising) yeast
¼ cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
3 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups scalded milk, cooled to warm (105-115 degrees F)
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 cups flour, added ½ cup at a time
Cut open your package of yeast and put it into your mixing bowl. Add the ¼ cup warm water. I know that the water that comes out of my tap is 110 degrees but BELIEVE ME, you want to have a food thermometer to temp the water to make sure that it’s not too hot or too cool so that the yeast is properly activated. If this part of the process is screwed up, you’ll never have bread. Again, believe me. It’s easy to “kill the yeast”.
After adding the water, give it a good stir. I love my little mini-whisk for this!
Then let it sit for five minutes. Meanwhile, put the milk on the stove to heat.
Milk burns easily, so you have to be mindful when you have it on the heat and stir it so it doesn’t scorch on the bottom. You want the heat to be high enough to scald the milk but not high enough to burn the milk so be careful! As you stir, you “stir in” good intentions for the bread – or “stir out” negative emotions, if you’re working with a waning moon. Baking bread is great for this kind of magic.
When little bubbles appear on the edges of the pan and the milk is beginning to thicken, it’s properly scalded. Set it aside so it can cool. Again, I advise you to use a food thermometer!
Now we return to the yeast and water mixture. See how bubbly it is? If it is not, then the water was too hot or too cold and the yeast wasn’t activated. Throw it out and start over. But if it looks like this, then you’re good to go.
Ya know what I love about this look? It looks like THE MOON.
So now, shift together three cups of flour, two tablespoons of sugar and a tablespoon of salt. The sugar is necessary because the yeast eats it for energy – without it, the bread won’t rise properly. Mix this in.
Now we beat the eggs. I like to beat them until they are as frothy as possible.
Next, we want to add the beaten eggs to the scalded milk. Because the milk is still quite warm and eggs are – well, eggs – we need to “temper” the eggs by adding a little milk to the egg mixture very slowly until the two are mixed evenly. If you add the eggs to the milk mixture all at once, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your milk – like egg-drop soup – which is not what we want.
What I do is slowly pour the milk into the bowl of eggs as I beat them. I had trouble taking pictures of this process with only two hands but I managed. I really need a few more hands!
After I get most of the milk into the bowl of eggs, I pour them back into the pan and continue beating until the entire mixture is as frothy as the head on a freshly-poured glass of beer. And then I pour that mixture into the yeast-flour mixture and continue beating the hell out of it.
This is what you want the batter to look like after all that “violence” !!
Don’t forget to add the oil! I have to admit, I often forget the oil and I forgot it when I was making it this particular time. If you forget the oil, it’s not a major omission – your bread will just be a tad more crumbly than it would have been without it. I have to set the oil in a place where I literally can NOT miss it so I won’t forget it. I don’t know why that’s often a problem. Some kind of brain glitch, I guess!
Now it’s time to mix in the rest of the flour. What I do is put a cup of flour into the sifter and then sift half of it into the batter – it’s usually around seven turns of the handle. I mix that in and then add the rest of the flour. That way, it’s easy to remember how much flour I am adding. My mother’s recipe said to add 2/3’s of a cup at a time but I find it easier to do a half-cup.
Generally, it’s a full three cups that gets added but sometimes it’s three and a half cups and sometimes it’s four cups – this is something that you learn to “feel”. Dough responds to weather and to altitude so it’s always one of those calls you make at the time.
When the dough is ready, dust your baking mat or counter-top with some flour and roll out the dough onto it. Flour your hands to keep them from getting sticky and start kneading the dough. The way I was taught was this: using the fleshy, muscular part of the palms of your hands, press into the dough and then give it a quarter turn and then repeat. You want to do this until the dough is sleek and supple but you don’t want to over-knead the dough – it’ll produce a tough texture. It’s easy to over-knead – it’s a very meditative act – and personally, I think the feeling of dough in my hands is one of the best feelings in the world. But nowadays, I am so busy that I tend to under-knead rather than over-knead because I’m just pressed for time.
You’ll have to flour your hands more than once, so keep the bag of flour handy. Also, this is not something that’s easy to do and take pictures at the same time!!
Obviously, I use two hands to knead but I had to hold the camera with at least one hand!
Put a few tablespoons of oil into the bowl and set the dough into it and turn so the entire ball of dough is covered. Then cover the bowl with a light towel and set in a warm place to rise. Since I’ve had the oven on for several hours already, I put it on the counter next to the oven. You don’t want it in a drafty place or by an open window unless it’s a hot summer day.
Forget about it for an hour. Do some housework, run errands, meditate, cast a spell, make love. When you come back to the kitchen, it should look like this:
I love that look! It has a fabulous smell, too. So now, take the towel off and punch it down! (Honestly, I never realized how violent baking bread is). When I was a kid, punching down the dough was always a fought-for privilege amongst us kids. It’s really fun, how the air escapes out of the dough and it all collapses like a Thanksgiving balloon after the parade.
Cover it up again and let it rise a second time, again for about an hour. This time, punch it down again but let the dough rest for a few minutes while you prepare your baking mat again. Roll the dough out on the mat and cut it in half with a large kitchen knife. As they again rest, grease two loaf pans. Gently form the two sections of dough into loaves and set them into the loaf pans. Cover them with the light towel and let them rise for a third hour.
After an hour, the ready-to-bake loaves should look like this:
Put the loaves into a preheated 350-degree oven. If you’re like me, the oven’s been on all through this process anyway, to keep the kitchen warm so the bread would rise properly. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on your oven.
The loaves should be golden brown on the outside and should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
This is the texture you are striving for. I admit that I don’t always get this. But this is the purpose of all that beating of the eggs and the milk. All that violence.
And nothing tastes any better than this. The hell with carb-free. I love my bread. Hail, Isis! Lady of Bread!
Yes, baking your own bread takes time and dedication but so does anything worthwhile. I love it as a way to connect to my mother and my grandmothers as well to my chosen goddesses. And I so love that first slice of bread, all golden and warm, just minutes out of the oven. Believe me, there is absolutely nothing better.
Until next month, Brightest Blessings and Bon Appetite!
Seawright, Caroline. “Isis, Sister of Nepthys, Mistress of Magic”. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/isis.html#.XETVFM17nIU
Telesco, Patricia. A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook. St Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1994.
About the Author:
Polly MacDavid lives in Buffalo, New York at the moment but that could easily change, since she is a gypsy at heart. Like a gypsy, she is attracted to the divinatory arts, as well as camp fires and dancing barefoot. She has three cats who all help her with her magic.
Her philosophy about religion and magic is that it must be thoroughly based in science and logic. She is Dianic Wiccan and she is solitary.
She blogs at silverapplequeen.wordpress.com. She writes about general life, politics and poetry. She is writing a novel about sex, drugs and recovery.