Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Yeast Bread - Yes You Can!

When I was out on my own and expanding my culinary skills beyond the (very good) Southern basics I learned from my mom, I decided to tackle yeast bread for the first time. I had a number of failures, a number of mediocre loaves, but gradually with practice I got better. One day I came across this recipe for an enriched white loaf, and everything finally came together. I've been making this loaf since the mid-80s, and now I'm excited to finally share it.

Like many home cooks, I learned a lot from my mother growing up. I was standing at the kitchen counter "helping" practically from the time I could stand. Watching Julia Child on The French Chef was a favorite activity, too. Even though we never branched out into the fancy fare on the show, the family wasn't shy about trying new things. We were the first people I knew who delved into Mexican food. Of course, in the '70s that meant Old El Paso taco kits and special dinners out at El Chico. Still, we were miles ahead of most of our hometown in trying such exotic food.

When I was out on my own, my friend Scott taught me about all kinds of things - I'm especially grateful for the introduction to stir-fry. The first cookbook I bought was the 1980's edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and I subscribed to Bon Appetit. Gradually I started experimenting with all kinds of dishes that weren't part of what we cooked at home, or were new ways of doing them.

One thing that we rarely attempted was yeast bread. (One exception is our family cinnamon roll recipe, which I'll share one day.) I wanted to learn, but had mixed success with various recipes I'd tried. At some point in the mid-80s, Bon Appetit published a recipe in their R.S.V.P. column for a rich white bread from The Cottage Tea House (the location of which I've long forgotten). I know I've hung on to this issue of the magazine all these years, but I don't currently know where it is, so I can't provide any more details. (I've also looked on the magazine web site, but the recipe isn't in the online database.) I do have my handwritten copy of the recipe, though. To date it's my favorite white bread. In fact, I love this recipe so much, and consider it such a central part of my baking DNA, that I'm a little misty-eyed at sharing it here now.

Another story about this bread: I used to make it quite regularly. While I haven't made it for a while, it was one of my specialties in the late 80s - early 90s. It was a go-to food gift and treat for company. I made it for my BFF, Stacy, a number of times. Stacy was so taken with it that she asked me for the recipe -- and Stacy was not known as a cook. Evidently she perfected her own version, though. Much later, she told me that when people asked her about the bread, she made up a story about it being a old family recipe handed down through generations, and refused to share it. That made me giggle to no end.

If you've never made yeast bread before, or haven't had success with it, it just takes practice. There's no particular reason I had success with this recipe when I hadn't with others -- it's just that by the time I'd tried this one, I had enough experience under my belt to do it right. Yeast bread can seem a little fussy at first, but once you've done it a few times, it will seem the easiest thing in the world. Many yeast breads are just flour, water, yeast, and salt, but this is an enriched, slightly sweet dough that is a step above the common loaf.

A few keys to keep in mind when making yeast bread:
  • Fresh yeast is important. I'm not a stickler for paying attention to "best by" dates; they are largely marketing ploys. I am pretty diligent about these dates with yeast, though, and even then I make sure it shows adequate signs of life during the proofing stage.
  • Temperature matters -- when proofing the yeast, during rising, and in baking. If the liquid used in proofing the yeast is too cold, it won't activate enough to give you the desired rising times. If it's too hot, it will kill the yeast. You should have a good candy/meat thermometer on hand for this and many other reasons. Also, as with any baking, a properly calibrated oven is crucial. I always have a separate oven thermometer hanging from my oven racks.
  • Bread flour gives a much better result than all-purpose flour. I actually used all-purpose when I baked up this particular loaf -- it was all I had on hand, I NEEDED to make this recipe, and I didn't want to go to the store. It's fine, but it would have risen higher had I used bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content, and thus a higher gluten content. The more gluten, the better the rise. If you DO use all-purpose, use one of the national brands. Southern brands like my beloved White Lily are lower in protein/gluten; that's the reason they make such great biscuits. Yeast breads need gluten, though. 
Here are a few personal notes, as well:
  • I use regular active dry yeast, sometimes referred to as instant yeast. I don't really care for rapid rise yeast (sometimes called bread machine yeast). Sure, sure, it lets you crank out bread faster, but faster = less flavor. I've never used cake yeast, but if that's your preferred type and you know how to substitute, that will work fine.
  • You can consider this a base recipe for all kinds of variations. I have a number of them up my sleeve that I've used regularly. In order to keep this post from being a mile long, though, I'll share those in a future follow-up post.
  • I typically hand-mix and hand-knead yeast bread. I didn't have a mixer when I was learning, and it's only been in the last few years that I've had a stand mixer that could handle yeast dough. I don't have anything against using a mixer, and I've made doughs in my food processor. Still, mixing by hand isn't difficult and the kneading is therapeutic. Even if I'm not working out any issues on the dough, I think kneading is fun. Still, if you really want to use a mixer, just make sure it's sturdy enough and you have a dough hook. This is not a dough for a whisk or paddle. 
  • My house smells really, really good right now.
The original recipe was for eight mini loaves, but I often just made two regular loaves. I've cut down the recipe here for just one regular loaf. If you'd like to make two, just double the ingredient amounts.

Cottage Tea House Bread

Adapted from Bon Appetit and The Cottage Tea House, wherever you are/were

1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp table salt
1 packet active dry yeast (not rapid rise yeast)
1/4 cup warm water (105F to 110F)
3-1/4 cups bread flour, plus a little more for dusting

Scald the milk in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in 2 Tbsp of the sugar, the butter, and salt. Allow to cool to lukewarm (under 110F). In a small bowl, combine the remaining 2 Tbsp of sugar, the yeast, and the warm water. Stir to mix well and allow to sit for 10 minutes or so. The yeast should activate and start working on the sugar, producing a nice foamy top. If it doesn't, and you are sure the water was the correct temperature, there may be a problem with the yeast.

Combine the milk mixture and the proofed yeast mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add one cup of flour and stir with a sturdy, non-bendable spoon to combine (I use a big wooden spoon). Add the second cup of flour and combine, then the remaining flour. With each addition it will be harder to mix, but get all the flour worked into the dough as best you can.

Lightly flour a clean work surface. Just a slight dusting is OK, but keep some extra flour standing by. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and continue mixing the dough with your hands until it is uniform and all the flour is worked in. Don't add any more flour at this point unless the dough is super-sticky. It will be sticking to your hands a bit at this point. When the dough has come together, start to knead in earnest. If you've never kneaded dough before, a good technique is to fold the top over, then push in with the heel of your hand. Turn the dough a quarter turn, fold down the top, and push. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You can alternate hands, pushing from one side to the other. It's OK to sprinkle a little more flour onto the work surface if it still sticks, but don't be too heavy-handed. You can be pretty vigorous with the kneading, and you want to work the whole mound of dough. You're not only developing the gluten that will make the bread rise, but you're continuing the mixing process. So, be sure to keep folding it over and pushing through the whole mass. Work out those frustrations, aggression, angst. You'll do this for about 10 minutes, and you'll find that the dough becomes rather smooth and springy but is still dense.

Round it into a ball and put it into a clean well-greased bowl (use oil or cooking spray) that's at least twice the volume of the dough. Turn the ball of dough over so that the top is greased. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and put it in a warm, draft-free place to rise. I use my oven with the light on; my mother used to rise the cinnamon roll dough on top of our TV. It shouldn't be in a HOT location, just warm room temperature. In about an hour and a half, the dough should expand to be double the size it was to start with. Check it in a hour, though. And, if it hasn't risen enough in that hour and a half, let it continue to rise until it's reached the correct volume. If it doesn't rise at all, then you have a yeast problem.

Prepare a  loaf pan by greasing it or spraying with non-stick spray. (Loaf pans come in many many sizes; for this loaf, use one that is either 4" x 8" or 9" x 5", or somewhere in between. Mine - measured on the bottom of the pan - is 4-1/2" x 8".) Preheat the oven to 350F.

Gently turn the dough out onto your work surface. (A lot of yeast bread recipes use the phrase "punch down the dough" but you don't want to be rough with it.) Press the dough with your hands to flatten it, pushing out any large bubbles you may find. Keep pressing and stretching the dough until it is a rectangle roughly as wide as your loaf pan is long, and about three times as long.

Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up like a jelly roll. Gently place it in the loaf pan, seam side down, tucking the sides under if needed to get it to fit into the pan.

Cover with the clean kitchen towel and place the pan in your warm draft-free rising place. Let the dough rise for about 30 minutes. It won't double in size but should rise quite a bit. (It will rise more in the oven.)

Place in the preheated oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Check for doneness at 30 minutes. The top should be dry, firm, and brown. If it looks brown enough to be done, you can turn the loaf out and check the bottom. It won't be a crusty or brown as the top, but should be evenly browned. If you thump the bottom of the loaf it should sound hollow. You can also check the internal temperature of the loaf. It should be around 195F.

Place the loaf on a rack to cool. I know this is tough -- it's really one of the hardest challenges you'll face that day -- but don't cut into the hot loaf. Let it cool completely before slicing if you want good, sturdy, non-raggedy slices.

When it IS cool, use a serrated knife to slice.

P.S. Your house will smell amazing.


Anonymous said...

I made this bread for years. My husband worked swing shift and used to take a mini loaf with his dinner at night. That was 28 years ago. I wanted to do something "special" for him and couldn't find my recipe. Thanks for putting out this blog. I can't wait to give him such a treat!

TLF said...

I am so glad you found it here! It is a real pleasure to know there are other fans of this recipe out there. I hope to have the follow-up post with variations this week. If not this week, then next.