Picking up new, or perhaps long dormant, hobbies seems to be a near universal thing during this pandemic, at least for those of us neither working nor homeschooling children, and baking, especially bread baking, seems to be a surprisingly common choice. So common, in fact, that in addition to hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there have been widespread shortages of flour and yeast. Even now, over a month into social distancing and stay at home orders, when you might think the supply chain has this sorted out, I found yeast at only one of the three stores we checked two days ago, and flour at only two of them.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Months ago while in Key West someone left a brand new looking bread machine in the give away section of the campground, and I scooped it up with the full intention of making some fresh bread in between cocktails and crabbing. I never got around to it; the machine just sat in our storage compartment all winter. And then, as we began the start of an (at least) two month stay in Sanibel, I used the opportunity to set up my “outdoor kitchen,” consisting largely of things I had collected from that same Key West campground give away area: pop up toaster, toaster oven, coffee machine, and my Wolfgang Puck bread machine.
Managing to scoop up 5 lbs of flour from a rapidly diminishing shelf and three individual sized packets of yeast from a freshly stocked Publix, I selected for my first attempt an extremely simple six ingredient white bread, which I proceeded to turn into a dense brick topped by an inch and a half of tough but edible bread. This was a near total failure that part of me saw coming. During the preparation I steadfastly ignored the nagging questions in the back of my mind saying things like “isn’t baking supposed to be precise, like, way less forgiving than cooking in terms of measurements?” Turns out that is a true thing.
Through a bit of internet sleuthing and in consultation with Nate via daughter Andrea, I realized I had screwed up four things:
- I couldn’t find any measuring spoons in the rig so I estimated teaspoon and tablespoon measurements. After which, when explaining what I think went wrong, Rosemarie pointed out an apparently commonly known aspect of tableware: the regular spoon is about a teaspoon, and the bigger spoon is about a tablespoon. Yes, knowing that would have helped.
- I also had to guess, wrongly it would turn out, at the “loaf size” machine setting because I did not even consider weighing things until they were already in the device, and thus too late to tare my kitchen scale.
- Making my estimates that much more critically flawed, I had selected a recipe that was quite anemic in terms of sugar, and thus “starved” the yeast, or whatever the right term is.
- And finally, I didn’t take into account ambient temperature for my outdoor kitchen in Florida, and thus did the whole process at warmer than ideal temps.
Despite all those errors and the loaf turning out… badly, I was struck by how easy this process was. Literally ten minutes in the kitchen, drop it in the machine, select four settings, and wait about three hours. That’s it! But I am also only using the bread machine; none of this “prep the dough in the machine but then take it out, shape it, and bake it in the oven nonsense. Who has time for that?
Alright, time to take this a bit more serious. For attempt two I went with the same recipe, but corrected three of my four errors: I measured carefully, weighed the result, and added a touch more sugar. The result was technically a failure: whereas my first loaf fell during both the final rise phase and the bake phase, this one only fell once, right when it was transitioning from final rise to bake. Literally, one minute it was tall, and two minutes later I check through the view portal to see it fallen, though it partially re-rose during the bake phase. But the taste! It was excellent; a hearty, yeasty bread like something you would get at an Italian restaurant to dip in herb infused olive oil, or at a seafood place to sop up the juice from your lemongrass and white wine bowl of mussels.
But it wasn’t “right,” it had fallen. So I did some more research and learned about the ambient temperature thing, and decided to give the same recipe one more try to get it right. I carefully measured, selected the right settings, put in a touch more sugar even than attempt number two, and waited for an evening in the ’70’s to make it. Oh, and we jazzed things up a bit with some rough crushed toasted walnuts. It came out exactly right: fresh, tasty, and beautiful. So, victory! And time to move on, but I have to admit that over the course of three days it went from fresh-out-of-the-oven excellent to sort of bland and boring, which sparked the idea of trying to recreate the delicious second loaf by intentionally violating the ambient temp guidance some time down the road.
Rosemarie got to select the next loaf, and after discussing options, she settled on a French bread. I found another very simple and highly rated recipe. It came out quite lovely and very fluffed, with the loaf nearly 7 inches tall, compared to 3 1/2 for my preferred, partially fallen white bread attempt number two. To my taste it followed the pattern of my “properly prepared” loaf number three: excellent the first day, but becoming a bit bland by day three, though it was still top tier as toast with honey and butter.
So that’s it, I had to retry number two. I prepped everything nearly as I had for that attempt, but based on some online feedback I cut back ever so slightly on the yeast amount, and waited until a hot mid day to make the attempt. I did not notice a fall, even when I tried to encourage one just before the bake phase by giving the machine several solid slaps, but there must have been something that went “wrong” because it came out exactly like number two, i.e., fantastic.
Since Rose felt that she had not gotten her share of the French bread loaf (yes, I ate that much of it) we returned to the successful loaf number four recipe for this sixth attempt. Again, it came out perfect and lasted all of three days.
The great thing I am learning about making bread is that once you have found a basic recipe that works, you can make near endless variations by adding ingredients such as herbs, spices, nuts, etc. We have two big rosemary plants growing at our site here in Sanibel, so for loaf seven I put those to good use: a small handful, finely chopped, mixed in with the dough at the very beginning, and a sprinkling of barely chopped leaves right as the bake cycle starts. It came out fantastic: perfect texture, beautiful to behold, and the rosemary aroma was quite powerful. For days opening the microwave (our breadbox) would give you a powerful hit of the herb, even though it was wrapped in a plastic bag.
So that’s the first seven loaves, and since we just finished the last one this morning and scored two bags of flour and a good amount of yeast at the neighborhood grocery, I sense another loaf coming soon, perhaps something sweet.