It has been some 8.000 years during which we humans have systimatically taken up agriculture. It has been just as long that we have been baking bread.
When you try to find a simple recipe for baking bread the easy way, right after opening the webpage with such a recipe it gets complicated. Completely unnessecary. We have been doing it for 8.000 years. In every culture that knows wheats and other cereals, there is also a form of bread being baked. Preferably on a daily base. Now, how can such a common thing be so complicated?
So I set out to try and find out for myself. Pretty soon I was baking some very decent breads. This is how I do it at the moment (things might change, you know):
I start with cleaning. Cleaning the surface I will be using for kneading the dough; cleaning the pot I use for mixing the dough; cleaning my hands thoroughly (and after that remembering not to pet the dog throughout the baking process); finding the cleanest drying cloth in the house. Not only does the cleaning prevent dog hair ending up in the finished bread. It also sets my mind to what I am doing.
After the cleaning I put the needed ingredients in a convenient spot, easy to reach for and yet out of the way of the mess bread making involves. There is not much needed: flower, salt, yeast, water (for now I only set up a clean and empty teacup for that; the water can wait).
That’s it. I’m set up to make bread.
I put some decent amount of flower in the pot. Not entirely sure how much; 150 grams maybe, 200. Not much more.
I add a couple of puffs of salt (maybe adding up to a teaspoon). With my hand I mix the salt through the flower thoroughly. Then I add the yeast (dried; a small pack of 7 grams). Again thoroughly mixing it with my hands.
So far so good. Now the delightfully messy part starts: I take out part of the flower mix and drop that in a nice small heap on the surface I’ll be working on to knead the dough once it is ready for that. Maybe some two hands full.
Time to add some water to the flower mix in the bowl and start the magic of it all. I use lukewarm tap water. I take it the water has the right temperature if my hands do not feel the temperature. I take one cup and poor it into the mixing bowl. And another. Then I use my hand to mix.
The mix will not really get smooth. And it will not yet be sticky. It feels and looks a bit like batter for pancakes, with lumps; not dough yet. So I add more flower and mix. And again. And again. Add flower; mix.
And then all of a sudden the mix starts to behave like chewing gum under your shoe. A sticky mess. I keep adding more flower, bit by bit, untill it is rather easy to gather the lot into one lump with loads of sticky spikes, that will not let go of my hand.
That’s when I take it out of the mixing bowl and dump it on to the flower I put on the working surface earlier. There. Ready for the kneading. 🙂
I don’t know exactly what I do in this part of the process. I sort of spread the dough and then fold the edges up and inward again. Press and spread out; fold to collect again. Meanwhile I try to free my hands and fingers of the sticky stuff. And then back to the spreading out and folding in. If the dough starts to stick to the surface of the counter I work on, I powder it with more flower, flip it over, powder the other side, and return to the spreading and folding.
Then, all of a sudden, it is done. I don’t know how I know. I just do. During the kneading I felt how the substance of the dough changed in my hands. I can see how it behaves. It doesn’t run anymore, or just very slowly. I can smell the subtle smell of yeast starting to do its work. I notice it all and just know: next stage.
I leave the dough sitting on the counter and clean out the pot I used as a mixing bowl. It is the pot I now will use for the baking of the bread. Then I dry that pot thoroughly inside and out. Now, to prevent the bread sticking to the pot when baking, I grease the inside a bit. I tried powdering it with flower, but that never worked for me. The surface of the pot I use, is too smooth and the flower wont stick to the vertical parts. So I oil it up a bit, or use butter.
I stick my hands into the sack with flower so I can work the dough a bit without it all getting messy again. Once more I spread the dough out and fold it in. I flip over the lump so the folds are now at the bottom, and shape it into a nice dome by pushing the bottom edge inwardly; tuck it in a bit. I powder the top and then drop the whole into the pot. Move it a bit, so it sits centred.
Then I put the pot on to the grid that will go into the oven later on, and cover it up with a drying cloth I soaked in hot water. Wet, not dripping, it locks in the moist so the top of the dough won’t dry out.
The waiting begins. The dough has to sit quietly, undisturbed, until it has about twice its original size. Before that moment, the oven has to be some 250degC. So I fire up the oven well before the dough is ready for the bake. It’s better to be too early than too late with this. Besides that, I let the dough sit on top of the closed oven and the escaping heat helpes the yeast do its work.
Once the dough has reached the desired size (I can smell the dough developing and somehow know when it’s ready) I take away the wet cloth and put the grid with the pot holding the dough in the oven, at a lower position. Close the oven and turn the temperature down to some 200degC, 210 maybe. Following closely how quickly the crust colours brown, I could turn down that temperature a bit after some twenty minutes. I don’t want it to burn.
And again wait. Some 40 to 45 minutes in all, and water will run through my mouth, which is how the now bread is telling me: “I’m done. Come and get me.”
What it all boils down to, is this. I put trust in the fact that I am human and millions of us bake bread daily. I focus, and then I just let my sense and senses lead me, so 8.000 years of common knowledge works through my hands. That is baking bread the easy way – and it is probably the most Zen thing I ever did.
Bon apetit! 🙂