Over the course of the next five months, I will develop some pretty incredible forearm muscles. My hands will become stronger and my short fingernails will need to be cleaned often. I’ll forgo wearing black unless I have on an apron, I’ll keep my hair pulled back in a ponytail, my house will continually stay warm, and it will smell like heaven around 5 p.m. every day. These winter months are my bread baking months.
Fresh bread isn’t anticipated anymore. It’s expected. And I gladly rise to the occasion because for me, baking bread is just about the most cathartic, relaxing and cozy experience I can conjure up this time of year.
Baking a loaf of bread may seem like a daunting task for most, and arguably so. It really is an art that must be honed. It takes practice and patience and a willingness to work within the margin of error.
But the result? The reward for all of that hard work and effort? A loaf of delicious bread and the status of “baker extraordinaire” in your household.
This recipe makes a great basic loaf of white sandwich bread. Yes, I’m aware of the health debate between white vs. wheat. But in the realm of bread baking, start out using white flour, which is far more forgiving (and rewarding) for a novice baker. As relatively simple as this is, even a pro will find it a great addition to the baking repertoire. Perfect for sandwiches, sliced thick and topped with apple butter or served with a smear of butter to dip in a piping hot bowl of tomato soup.
American Sandwich Bread
Time: about 2 hours (lots of inactive time)
Yield: one 9-inch loaf
This recipe calls for the use of a standing mixer and dough hook. If you don’t own one, good old-fashioned hand kneading is perfectly acceptable. Taken from “Cook’s Illustrated.”
• 3 1/2 – 3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting the work surface)
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 cup warm whole milk (about 110 degrees)
• 1/3 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
• 3 tablespoons honey
•1 envelope (about 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast (also called rapid rise)
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Once the temperature reaches 200 degrees, maintain the heat for 10 minutes, then turn off the oven.
2. Mix 3 1/2 cups of flour and the salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix the milk, water, butter, honey and yeast in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Turn the machine to low and slowly add the liquid. When the dough comes together, increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and satiny, stopping the machine two or three times to scrape dough from the hook, if necessary – this takes about 10 minutes. (After 5 minutes of kneading, if the dough is still sticking to the sides of the bowl, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time and up to 1/4 cup total, until the dough is no longer sticky.) Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface; knead for about 15 seconds to form a smooth, round ball.
3. Place the dough in a very lightly oiled large bowl, rubbing the dough around the bowl to coat lightly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the warmed oven for 40 to 50 minutes until the dough doubles in size.
4. Gently press the dough into an 8-inch square that measures 1 inch thick. Starting with the side farthest away from you, roll the dough firmly into a cylinder, pressing with your fingers to make sure the dough sticks to itself. Turn the dough seam-side up and pinch it closed. Place the dough seam-side down in a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and press it gently so it touches all four sides of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap; set aside in a warm spot until the dough almost doubles in size, 20 to 30 minutes.
5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Boil 2 cups of water and pour into a baking pan, and place it on the bottom rack. If possible, put the loaf on a rack above the baking pan of water (my oven is much too small to have a loaf of bread on anything but the bottom rack), otherwise put the two pans side by side. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted at an angle from the short end just above the pan rim into the center of the loaf reads 195 degrees.
6. Remove the bread from the pan, transfer to a wire rack, and cool to room temperature. Slice and serve.