Hi. My name is Rachel, and I am a carbohydrate addict. But not any carbs will do: I want bread. All kinds of bread. Loaves, muffins, bagels — heck, even a bag of croutons will do. I was pretty much raised on bread. There were always English muffins and bagels in my house, my father baked bread when I was young, and my brother baked bagels for almost the entirety of his college career. Bread is in my bloodstream, and my kitchen is often filled with the smell of a freshly baked loaf. Many people shy away from baking bread due to nothing more than what I think is an irrational fear of the kitchen. Baking your own bread is not the onerous task that many people believe it to be. In fact, it is a truly rewarding and fairly simple experience that ends with a tasty product you can be proud of.
But let's face it, life is busy. Finding the time to let your dough rise, give it a knead, let it rise again, give it another knead, shape it, and bake it is often a difficult, if not impossible, task for many people. Kneadlessly Simple by Nancy Baggett takes all the time constraints out of your bread making while still producing satisfying results. Baggett dispels a few myths about bread, the first being that a warm place is needed for your dough to rise. While warmth can help, time is of the essence in the slow-rise, no-knead method discussed in Kneadlessly Simple. While your dough is rising, it is also kneading itself, which takes much of the guesswork out of the process of bread making. While rising, the full, rich flavors of your bread begin to develop and the smell is simply intoxicating. The hardest part of the Kneadlessly Simple process is choosing which recipe to try first. My first adventure in no-knead bread was the English Muffin Bread, which more than exceeded my expectations. Before popping my bread in the oven, it was just about overflowing in the pan, and the pre-baked nooks and crannies that I adore in English muffins were evident throughout.
The slow-rise, no-knead method looks as if it is here to stay in the world of bread baking, as other excellent books on the topic have been unleashed to the world of home bread bakers. Jim Lahey's My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method has recently been released and is taking the bread world by storm. The founder of Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC, Lahey's book is brimming with amazing recipes such as Sweet Focaccia, Fennel Raisin Bread, and Irish Brown Bread, as well as almost 100 other tantalizing loafs.
The 2007 release of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François seemingly brought on the slow-rise revolution and continues to wow bread enthusiasts. Their first book was such a success that, for the health-conscious bread baker, the authors have released a second book, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Included are recipes for whole grain breads, fruit and nut breads, and gluten-free loaves.
While the no-knead method of bread baking is a great innovation for many home bakers, I have to admit that it's hard for me to give up the cathartic, meditative experience of kneading dough. It is also practically impossible for me to shake certain aspects of my New York roots, so I had to find a bagel recipe that was comparable to the bagels of my childhood. Luckily, Peter Reinhart, author of The Bread Baker's Apprentice, is a native East Coaster who understands the importance of good bagels in one's life. His bagel recipe has been called a "bagel for the ages," and I certainly would not dispute this. Reinhart not only explains the science behind his methods (slow fermentation, boil-and-bake, the use of malt powder), but the step-by-step photographs will help to assuage any fears that may arise as you embark on your first bagel batch, or any of the other 50 or so recipes that you try your hand at. Once your friends taste your bagels (and trust me, they will, because you will want to show off your amazing creations), they will think you are a professional baker.
Another of my all-time favorite kneaded breads is challah. Done properly, challah is eggy and soft, with a delicate and shiny crust, and is not only delicious right out of the oven but makes the best French toast for the next few days. Finding a challah recipe is not difficult. Finding a challah recipe that can't be compared to any other was more of a challenge. I have tried many a challah recipe and found that Jayne Cohen's recipe from her beautifully crafted book Jewish Holiday Cooking is the cream of the crop. A short history of challah and its importance in Jewish tradition is followed by a recipe with the most basic ingredients that produce the richest, most satisfying loaf that will ever grace your lips. Her recipe yields two loaves, which is excellent for serving large groups of people or for saving that extra loaf for the next morning's breakfast. You can also choose to make a double braided loaf, my personal favorite, which makes a great centerpiece for a large meal.
There are many bread purists who believe that bread baking in its true form can only be accomplished by hand. I tend to fall into this category. However, I also realize that not everyone has the time to devote to either kneading or waiting 18 hours for slow-rise dough. For those with the desire for fresh bread in just a few hours, there is the bread machine. Yes, I said it. Bread machine. It almost sounds like a dirty word coming out of my mouth, but admittedly I have turned to my bread machine in times of need. When you need a fresh-baked loaf in three hours but can't spend any time in the kitchen, the bread machine is your friend. So is Beth Hensperger and her incredible book The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook. Hensperger displays the many merits of machine loaves by offering up such mouth-watering recipes as Black Olive Bread, Sour Cream Semolina Bread with Herb Swirl, Sourdough Cornmeal Bread, and about 300 others. Not only are the bread recipes tantalizing, but the fact that you can make jams, preserves, and chutneys in your machine with the recipes in this book is reason enough to buy yourself a bread machine.
Now that autumn is officially here and the holidays are just around the corner, it's a great time to start honing your bread-baking skills. Turkey is great on Thanksgiving, but what if you could serve your guests freshly baked bagels for breakfast? How impressed they would be! Extra points if you can make your own butter.
÷ ÷ ÷
Rachel is a sorting maven at Powell's City of Books. Much of her free time is spent shopping for yarn, befriending all the stray kitties in the neighborhood, and fantasizing about moving to New Zealand. Or Iceland -- that would be fine, too.
Books mentioned in this post