Fresh Baked Bread
Lately I have been thinking about baking some bread. Bread has been on my mind since I recently came across a spate of articles bashing the bakeries in San Francisco for serving four dollar slices of toast (places like Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club, The Mill and Tartine to name a few). To read the articles, you would have thought that it was the end of the world and the hipsters and techies were responsible. I was confused (or maybe I’m just jaded) but I don’t think $4 is too much for a great piece of toast. It’s not like they were serving Wonder Bread and margarine. It could also be that I know how much work goes into making a good loaf of bread and just how satisfying an exceptional piece of toast, warm and slathered with butter, can be. This is probably because of the freshly baked bread my grandmother used to make every week. For her making bread was part of her routine and just business as usual in our house.
My grandmother was born in Hangtown, California, the daughter of California pioneers. She was an exceptional homemaker and an incredible baker. As the story goes she began baking her own bread during the war because it was rationed. When the war was over, grandpa liked it so much that she continued making it on a regular basis. We were fortunate to live close by and spent a lot of time in grandma’s kitchen. She had an old Wedgwood stove, the kind that sat very high off the ground on four legs. I loved that old stove… so did grandma. Grandpa bought her a new top of the line ‘O’Keefe and Merritt’ in the 70’s, but she kept the Wedgwood in the garage and continued to use it. I reminisce about my grandparents’ house often. I can picture their kitchen and hear the screeching sound of the broiler drawer sliding out for melted cheese sandwiches while the Giants game played on the radio. The garage always smelled of Gravenstein apples from the garden that eventually ended up in apple sauce (another thing that we never had to buy at the store…Thank God!) I am grateful for these special memories even though I get a little melancholy thinking about how much I miss my grandparents. But as the old saying goes, “you can never go home again”.
Fortunately, what I can still do to honor my grandmother is bake bread using her recipe. Even though she never wrote it down, her recipe has been lovingly preserved by my sister Mary. Baking bread isn’t hard but it takes a little practice and you have to follow directions to a tee. It is chemistry and physics after all, and one goof can mean the difference between success and a bomb. Some of the steps that don’t seem important can make a big difference in the final product. Case in point: scalding the milk. The idea is to get the milk to a temperature of around 180° F. (but no higher) in order to denature the proteins in the milk which assist in the rising process. If you get the milk too hot and it boils or scorches, it will also have a negative effect on rising. Once you have scalded your milk it is also important to let it cool so it doesn’t kill the yeast. Another vital step is to find a warm place to let your dough rise, somewhere around 80° F. is ideal. If you have a ‘proofing’ setting on your stove you have it made. Dissolving your yeast in warm (but not hot) water is also important. It is probably hot enough out of the tap but check it out with a thermometer if you aren’t sure. You should be able to put a finger in it without burning it. For reasons like this the recipe might sound a little wordy. I hope I haven’t discouraged you from attempting to make bread. I remember getting a bit discouraged the first time I made bread and it didn’t come out. I am glad I kept trying, because not only does it get easier every time, but as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Grandma also made Cinnamon Bread every week. The basic bread recipe is for two loaves of white bread so it is easy to make one into cinnamon bread. My favorite sandwich when I was growing up was a toasted ‘Ham Salad Sandwich’ served ‘open faced’. We referred to the ham salad as ‘Ham Goop’, not the most appetizing name if you didn’t hear it all the time growing up, but delicious just the same.
As I sit here after baking bread for the best part of the day and writing this post I am feeling very reminiscent. I even decided to go all out and make some Ham Goop to go along with the bread. I am enjoying the lingering smell of fresh baked bread and a toasty Ham Goop Sandwich. Then, all of a sudden I realize that I am no longer melancholy…I am home.
This recipe is for 2 basic loaves of white bread.
- ¼ cup warm water (about 100°-110° F.)
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to around 100°-110° F.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 6-6½ cup all-purpose white flour
- Vegetable oil
- Heat the milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat string constantly with a wooden spoon until it gets to around 180° F. (about the time when small bubbles appear on the edge of the pan). Check with a thermometer if you aren't sure. DO NOT BOIL. Remove from heat and add the butter to the milk. Set it aside to cool a bit (around 90°-110° F.) Add dry yeast to a mixing bowl and add ¼ cup warm water and ½ tablespoon sugar. Allow to proof for 10 minutes (it should double in size and get foamy if the yeast is good). When the milk has cooled to the correct temperature you can add it to the yeast along with the remaining 1½ tablespoons of sugar and salt. You can now begin mixing in the flour. I use a stand mixer, but it can also be done by hand. Add the first three cups of flour one at a time stirring each time until the flour is evenly moistened. Add the fourth cup of flour and beat until dough is smooth and elastic. Mix in the 5th cup of flour to make a stiff dough. You might have to take it off the mixer and mix it by hand at this point as the dough will be very stiff. Measure out another cup of flour and sprinkle half of it over a board. Turn your dough out onto the board and start kneading it. Keeping the board floured as you go, knead the dough by pulling it toward you with your fingers, than folding it over and pushing down on it with the heal of you hand. Knead it for about 10 minutes. It should be satiny and smooth when you are done. I suppose you can do this in the stand mixer with a dough hook, but I like doing it on the board. Form the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, flipping it over so that the top has a coat of oil on it as well. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and put it in a warm spot (80° F. is ideal). Leave it undisturbed for about 1½ hours. If the temperature was right, it should have doubled in size. After it has risen, punch it slightly to remove some air and turn it out onto a floured board. Briefly knead to form into an oval, then divide in half, cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Shape each into a loaf and put into a 9” x 5” lightly greased loaf pan. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. After that time, place is a preheated 375° F. oven and bake for 35-40 minutes or until well browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Turn loaves out onto a rack to cool.
When I bake bread, I make one into cinnamon bread. This recipe calls for 1 of the 2 balls of dough from the above recipe.
This is your basic ham salad recipe that we always referred to as “Ham Goop”. I still make it the same way my grandmother did, but sometimes I add a little grated cheddar. I don’t think grandma would have objected.
- 12 ounce piece of ham, chopped
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- ½ cup chopped sweet pickles (please don't use relish)
- ¾ cup mayonnaise
- ½-3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese (optional)
- Mix all the above ingredients together and spread over toasted bread. Serve open faced.