Although it comes in many forms, bread is arguably the most universal food. It is still made essentially the same way as a thousand years ago. So even with all the modern conveniences to take the heavy labour out of the job, why are so many cooks today intimidated by making bread at home?
"Everything's so easy when you can go out and buy it," says Mike Matthews, owner of Arva Flour Mills, just north of London. Established in 1819, it is Canada's oldest continuously operating, water-powered flour mill. "It's not that hard to bake a loaf of bread, but people forgot it wasn't that hard."
Chuck Wingenbach of Vancouver agrees. "Out of all the baked items out there... bread is something people are sort of afraid of," says the former restaurateur, who created thekneadforbread.com website eight years ago and now runs it full-time.
But both believe home bread-making is on the upswing. There was a minor resurgence when bread machines first became available, they say, although many now sit unused in cupboards.
But the "whole slow food movement and eating locally and knowing what's in your food" are all factors in a renewed interest in homemade bread, Matthews says. "And when the economy went down and people were losing their jobs, (they) started doing things for themselves."
Wingenbach says it may have a lot to do with dietary needs and preferences. "More people now are getting into organics. A lot more people want the whole-grain breads, seeded bread, whole-wheat, gluten-free, getting farther away from white bread."
His website offers step-by-step, fully illustrated recipes for all kinds of bread and gets about 2,000 visitors a day from around the world, he says.
Wingenbach had always loved and made bread at home, but his "passion" for it began when he owned a soup and sandwich shop. He makes it by hand, without benefit of dough-kneading equipment.
"I love feeling the dough and kneading the dough. There's something sort of spiritual about it. It's sort of a meditating time, just slowly kneading for 10 or 15 minutes."
Kneading is the most important part of the process, he says. "You have to create the gluten (the protein in flour) and the only way you can do that is by working the dough. That causes the dough to become elastic. As you work it and knead it, you create the gluten strands and build the protein within the bread. Then it starts to stretch. And that's what's going to give you your rise."
Wingenbach feels the most important development in bread-making is instant yeast, which does not have to be activated in water. He uses it in everything. After it's opened, it can be refrigerated for two or three months or frozen for up to six months.
He says "artisan" breads with crunchy crusts are tricky to make because home ovens aren't hot enough. His tip is to use a baking or pizza stone. He puts the stone in the oven when he turns it on to heat. At the same time he puts a cast-iron skillet filled with lava rocks on the floor of the oven (or the lowest rack possible) beneath the stone.
When the loaf is ready to bake, he puts it right on the stone (it doesn't work if the loaf is in a pan), pours boiling water over the lava rocks and quickly closes the oven door. The hot stone seals the bottom of the bread and the steam created by the hot rocks and water causes crystallization of the sugars on the top of the bread and creates a nice hard crust.
In terms of ingredients, "Anything you put into a sandwich you can put into bread," he says. "It's really fun to experiment. You can put ham or bacon or cheese, any kind of vegetable, juices. It really is quite versatile."
Dave Tipton, vice-president of national accounts for A.B. Mauri, the company that makes Fleischmann's Yeast, says sales of commercially produced bread are gradually dwindling, partly because of "dough conditioners," natural enzymes bread manufacturers use to extend shelf life, so the bread not only doesn't get mouldy as quickly but also stays soft for a week or more. Because it lasts longer, less is being thrown out.
But the shelf life of homemade bread probably isn't a factor for most families because it is consumed so quickly.
"Yeast is a living bacteria," Wingenbach says. "Bread is the only food we make that we really bring to life. If we cook with fruits and vegetables and meat, we actually 'kill' them first. But with bread, we're growing it and nurturing it and feeding it with sugars."
And philosophy aside, there's not much to top the smell of freshly baked bread.
-- The Canadian Press
Easy honey white bread and spinach feta bread recipes /D4
Easy honey white bread
MOST beginners should start with white bread "because it's easier to do," says Mike Matthews, owner of Arva Flour Mills in Arva, Ont. This recipe has the extra treat of a little sweetness.
1.75 to 2 l (7 to 8 cups) all-purpose flour
250 ml (1 cup) dry powdered milk
3 pkgs active dry yeast
15 ml (1 tbsp) salt
750 ml (3 cups) warm water (40 to 43 C/105 to 110 F)
75 ml (1/3 cup) light honey
75 ml (1/3 cup) melted butter
In a large mixing bowl, place 500 ml (2 cups) of the flour, milk powder, yeast and salt. Add warm water and mix with an electric mixer for 1 minute.
Add honey and butter. Continue to mix with electric mixer for another minute.
Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Turn dough onto a lightly floured flat surface. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes using your hands. Place in a clean greased bowl. Lightly butter top of dough. Cover and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead for 1 to 2 minutes to remove air. Cut dough into 3 equal parts and shape into round loaves. Place on a greased baking sheet, cover and let rise for 1 hour.
Bake in a 180 C (350 F) oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.
Makes 3 loaves.
Spinach feta bread
THE flavour and texture of this savoury bread is amazing, combining rye, whole-wheat and white flour.
175 ml (3/4 cup) bread flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) lukewarm water
1 ml (1/4 tsp) instant yeast
In a large bowl, combine these ingredients and beat till well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 12 to 16 hours.
15 ml (1 tbsp) oil
500 ml (2 cups) chopped fresh spinach
300 ml (1 1/4 cups) lukewarm water
125 ml (1/2 cup) dark rye flour
300 ml (1 1/4 cups) whole-wheat flour, plus extra for sprinkling
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
2 ml (1/2 tsp) instant yeast
500 ml (2 cups) bread flour
250 ml (1 cup) feta cheese
In a saucepan, place about 15 ml (1 tbsp) oil and set on stove to warm. Add spinach and sauté till cooked, stirring continuously so spinach doesn't brown. Sauté for about 2 minutes, then place spinach on paper towels. Use your hands to press down on spinach to squeeze out any liquid and set aside.
Combine "night before" mixture with lukewarm water. Mix with a wooden spoon. Add rye and whole-wheat flours and mix till smooth. Add salt and instant yeast and stir till well blended. Let mixture sit, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Add bread flour, about 125 ml (1/2 cup) at a time, until mixture becomes too hard to mix. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead in remaining flour. Use just enough flour to make dough slightly sticky. Knead dough for 8 to 10 minutes.
Let dough rest for about 5 minutes. Flatten dough a little and knead in cooked spinach and feta cheese until incorporated. (Don't worry if spinach is clumped together; it will break up during kneading.)
Put a little oil in a clean large bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn over till lightly coated on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 2 hours or till double in bulk.
Turn dough out onto a flat surface and cut in half. Shape into 2 round loaves and place on a cornmeal-covered piece of parchment paper. Sprinkle top of dough with a little whole-wheat flour. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let rest for 1 hour.
About 45 minutes before baking, place a baking stone in oven and a cast-iron skillet on the floor of the oven or on lowest rack. (If you are using a baking sheet rather than a baking stone, do not place baking sheet into oven beforehand.) Heat oven to 220 C (425 F).
Score tops of loaves and place in oven. Pour about 250 ml (1 cup) boiling water into hot cast-iron skillet and close oven door.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or till loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Makes 2 loaves.