Weekend becomes bakecation, breaducation all in one
We've heard of the staycation, the workcation and the playcation.
And if you're a Swift, there's also bakecation.
It all started a couple of months ago, while we watched Mom slide a pan of her gooey caramel rolls into the oven. I mentioned that I really needed to learn how to make bread. Mom mentioned that my brother, Gary, wanted to spend a day with her to also get breaducated.
An idea fizzled up as quickly as overachieving yeast dropped into a cup of warm water. What if we made it an event? Mom could teach a class on bread baking to her kids and grandkids. After all, we had mastered the art of eating her bread, yet none of us have mastered the art of baking it.
We picked a weekend in late February, and our Breadend was set.
Bread is serious business in the Swift family. Some of our warmest family memories revolve around the bread-making ritual in our home. Mom even won a state fair or two with her white wedding rolls.
When she baked, she did so in volume. After all, there were always hired men and hungry kids to feed, and she had a couple of aircraft-carrier-sized deep freezers that could hold enough vittles to feed an army of competitive eaters for a month.
Her ritual started early in the morning, when she combined a baffling recipe of flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, oil and — judging by the deliciousness of the finished product — unicorn shavings. The bread was typically mixed, coaxed and kneaded in a giant, see-through Tupperware container that also doubled as the official potato salad bowl for family reunions.
The dough would be parked someplace warm — usually by the kick-plate grille at the bottom of the refrigerator — until it threatened to overflow from the top of the container. Once in a while, it actually did spill over, like a wonderful avalanche of gluten-y lava. We kids were trained to "watch the bread" and "punch it down," which we loved. After all, how often did our parents encourage us to "help out" by pummeling something?
We also were recruited to help "make buns" when the dough was ready. Fingers coated with Crisco oil, we lopped off pucks of dough and then obediently folded and pinched them into tidy little spheres. (Actually, mine usually looked more like Dwight E. Eisenhower.)
The rolls were then placed on greased pans and covered with cut-open bread bags until they grew into plump carb pillows.
Here's where the "warm" part of the memories literally grew warm, as we pulled pan after pan of baked rolls out of the oven. Every square inch of the countertop would be covered with white and whole-wheat buns. Sometimes, we would "accidentally" maim a bun while sliding it off the pan with the metal spatula. That led to the ultimate sacrifice: The need to eat all buns that did not meet aesthetic standards.
That taste of warm, yeasty bread — slightly nutty from the home-ground whole-wheat flour — slathered in honey and melty Parkay (sorry, the 1970s were anti-butter) was like a heaven sandwich.
Time for our breaducation
Which brings us to the present. Crisco and Parkay are no longer considered healthier than butter, and gluten has practically become a curse word. Even so, many people still love the aroma, texture, taste and idea of homemade bread.
So much so that I get up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday to drive four hours to my mother's house to get breaducated.
When I walk into the kitchen, my oldest sister and godchild are already elbows-deep in a batch of whole-wheat bread dough. Mom picked up the high-protein wheat from the elevator earlier that week, and then ground it with the mini flour mill she's used since the 1970s when our Uncle Jack began extolling the virtues of ingesting flour with the wheat germ still intact.
We follow the whole wheat bread recipe that was included in our family cookbook back in 2006, but we soon learn that Mom uses this as a very loose template. Her bread-making is more art than science — perfected by 60-some years of adding a bit of flour and a splash of oil until the dough simply "feels" right.
We did our best to keep up, copiously scrawling notes with flour-covered hands. We exasperated Mom by asking persnickety questions like, "What do you mean by 'soft' dough?" and "You said to add flour in the yellow pitcher until it's about ¾ full. How many cups do you think the pitcher holds?"
By the time my brother showed up for the second batch of white bread in the early afternoon, we were already exhausted. At day's end, everybody had a hand in making the dough. Literally. We prodded, examined and stretched it in our quest to understand how to make the perfect loaf. (The lone exception was Dad, who napped in his recliner, waking only to say, "That's a lost art. You guys better remember it," and to sample fresh buns out of the oven to make sure they "passed code.")
I'll include the recipe at the end of this story, but it's hard to capture the full experience without sending every reader a sample of dough. However, we did glean some general tips from our lesson.
• Warmth is your friend. Yeast is kind of like your picky in-laws, who complain if it's too cold and protest when it's too warm. Mom "proofs" her yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and warm water — somewhere between 105 and 120 degrees. Within minutes it turns into a lively, foamy brew, which means the yeast is ready to raise the roof. Mom actually takes great pains to keep the dough at a consistently warm level. She adds room-temperature eggs and warmed milk and she even briefly microwaves the flour — especially if it came out of cold storage.
One note: Don't add oil until the yeast has really started to party. Yeast cells thrive on simple sugars, so adding fat too early will be like ushering in an unwelcome chaperone to interrupt their chemical dance.
• Use high-protein bread flour, not the wimpy all-purpose stuff. High-protein flour (Mom prefers Dakota Maid) literally builds a stronger bread, with a higher rise, pleasantly crusty exterior and chewlicious interior. Save the all-purpose flour and cake flour for tender and chemically leavened baked goods like pie crusts and cakes.
• Bread 'kneads' love. Bread loves to be man-handled. The more you knead it, the better it is. I was curious about the science behind this, so I checked out a bread-baking tutorial on www.thespruce.com. The way they explain it, wheat flour contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which combine to form gluten. When bread dough is first mixed together, these proteins are knotted together like that time you washed all those pantyhose in the washer without using a lingerie bag. But, as you knead the dough, these proteins line up like recruits in basic training. Strands of gluten form to create a matrix of strength and structure within the bread dough, which traps gasses and allows the dough to rise. It takes at least 10 minutes for this to happen, so it's OK to be kneady.
• Resist the urge to add all the flour at once; add as you go. Mom initially adds enough flour to form a sticky but workable dough (about ¾ of the total amount). She then adds a little here and there while kneading. If the dough becomes too stiff, she also reserves some of the oil called for in the original recipe and works that in while kneading too.
• Give whole-wheat flour a squishy sidekick. We've all eaten whole-wheat bread that is like chewing on a tree. Mom offsets this Rambo flour a bit by initially adding whole wheat flour (about ¾ of the total amount), then "finishing" the dough with white flour during the kneading process.
Another tip: After mixing together the ingredients (including about ¾ of the whole-wheat flour), she lets the whole-wheat dough "rest" for 15 minutes or so before the kneading phase. Whole wheat expands when it gets wet, so if you dump in the whole amount right away, the dough will get too stiff. (See "chewing on a tree" reference above.)
• The more times you let the bread "rise," the finer texture it will create. However, you can "exhaust" the yeast by letting the bread rise too high or too many times, so don't be a tyrant.
• The best part about bread-making is letting it rise, because that means you get to sit down and drink your coffee.
• My mother can bake a giant batch of bread while simultaneously making fry bread for lunch and turning the dinner roast with a fondue fork. This has nothing to do with your tutorial. I just found it impressive.
Mom's Whole Wheat Bread
2 packages dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup warm water (at least 105 degrees)
2 room-temperature eggs, beaten
½ cup brown sugar, packed (you also can use ¼ cup brown sugar and ¼ cup honey, although you'll need to add more flour if using liquid sweetener)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup oil or butter, divided
1 cup 2 percent milk, warmed (105 degrees)
3 ½ cups sifted whole wheat Dakota Maid bread flour (plus 1 cup or so white flour to add during the kneading process)
Dissolve yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in warm water; let it bubble. To beaten eggs, add brown sugar or honey, salt, half of the oil and warm milk. Stir in yeast mixture. Add flour, a small amount at a time, beating well. Add only sufficient flour to make soft dough.
Cover and let rest 10-15 minutes. Turn out on a board lightly dusted with white flour. Knead well, adding extra white flour and oil as needed, until surface is smooth and satiny and covered with tiny blisters. Place in large, greased bowl. Cover and let rise until slightly more than doubled in bulk. Punch down and let rise 30 minutes. Punch down and let rise another 10 minutes.
Shape into desired rolls or loaves. Cover and let rise in warm place (at least 85 degrees) until doubled in bulk.
Bake at 350 to 375 degrees (16 to 20 minutes for rolls, 25 to 35 minutes for loaves).
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.