Baking yeasted bread is easy, but it can be one of the most intimidating things to tackle if you’ve never done it. My first time, I almost convinced myself I couldn’t do it at all.
I was in culinary school, in my early 50’s, struggling to keep up with all the much younger students in my class. I shoved baggy sleeves of an ill-fitting chef’s jacket up past my elbows, only to have them immediately slump back down over my knuckles, as I re-read for what felt like the 11th time, the damn whole-wheat bread recipe I’d been assigned by Chef.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, little blonde and brunette pony-tailed whirlwinds rushed around me to pull out the last of the scales, bowls, and measuring cups, seeming to know exactly what to do, while they chattered across their work areas about boyfriends, the latest bars, and parties. Feeling awkward and about 90 years old, my anxiety tasted the beginnings of tears, and I slipped out the back, and into the sole, tiny bathroom to find a moment of quiet so I could focus.
When I (finally) returned to my work station, I was (of course) waaaay behind. But I finally had a semblance of order in my mind. I found some scales, weighed out the flour, added yeast, tested the water temperature, and began the timeless meditation of kneading. My shoulders relaxed as I found a rhythm, and I watched my lump of paste transform into a springy, smooth globe of dough. Chef stopped by and tested it with a discriminating finger and pronounced it ‘very good’.
I tucked that little globe gently into a bowl for a nap.
I punched it down, folded it over to create structure, and tucked it back in.
It bravely rose again.
I scored it, found a free oven, and slid the creased dough onto a searing hot pizza stone with a few quick sprays of cold water for luck. I crossed my fingers…there was nothing more I could do. Surely mothers sending their children to college must feel this way, I thought.
HUGE relief as I slid it from the oven a short time later and onto a cooling rack. It was a beautiful, deep golden brown.
Not able to wait, I tore off a hunk – the moment of truth for bread bakers the world over – and I checked out the crust and crumb, slathered on a little butter, and took my first bite.
I decided right then and there that I adored baking bread. For the next several months, I baked bread every week, experimenting with herbs and sour dough starters, before moving onto sweet yeasted breads. I gave serious consideration to apprenticing in a bakery, but couldn’t face having to get up so early, and looked at classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Ultimately I settled for nurturing my love for baking fresh bread in my own kitchen.
The point of this tale? Whatever your fears, make up your mind to bake your own bread some day. It looks like a lot of steps, but really, most of the time is spent just waiting while it rests. Your work is actually minimal — a nice long massage (which can also be done by a dough hook), a little folding, and a quick score at the end with a razor blade. Once you taste bread fresh from the oven, you’ll be spoiled forever.
- Combine the bread flour, yeast, honey, and warm water in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a bread hook. Mix on low for one minute and move up to the third speed for another minute. Add the salt and anise, and mix vigorously for 10 minutes on at least the 5th speed.
- The dough should be soft, smooth, and pliable when pressed by your finger. Add the figs at a low speed to disperse them through the dough.
- Place the dough in a clean, large bowl that's very lightly oiled. Cover with plastic and place in a draft-free, warm place in the kitchen, and let the dough rest for 3 - 4 hours while it gently rises to double it's volume.
- Punch it down and fold it over itself, recover with plastic, and slide it into the refrigerator overnight.
- The following morning, remove from the refrigerator - it should be all puffed up again. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a baking stone on the bottom rack. Place the dough on a flat baking sheet lined with parchment paper and shape into an oval loaf, lightly flour, and cover with plastic wrap. Bring to room temperature.
- Score the top of the loaf 2 - 3 times with a razor blade, and lightly spray with water. Slide the dough onto the pizza stone (or just slide the entire baking sheet onto the pizza stone). Spray the insides of the hot oven with cold water to create steam. Steam is what helps to create a crusty surface on the bread.
- Bake for 25 minutes, or until the bread's internal temperature measures 200˚F. Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Welcome to Progressive Eats, our virtual version of a Progressive Dinner Party. This month’s theme is the Flavors of France and is hosted by Jane Bonacci who blogs at The Heritage Cook. Join us and make something unique and delicious!
The Flavors of France!
- Tarte á l’Oignon – French Onion Tart from Spice Roots
- Gougeres filled with Bechamel aux Champignons from Pastry Chef Online
- Provencal Vegetable Soup Au Pistou from Mother Would Know
- Duck Breasts a l’Orange from The Heritage Cook
- Fig and Anise Bread from The Wimpy Vegetarian
- Zucchini Summer Squash Tomato Gratin from Jeanette’s Healthy Living
- Kir Royale from Miss in the Kitchen
- Lemon Glazed Madeleines from Barbara Bakes
- Triple-Layer Chocolate Macaroon Cake from François Payard from Creative Culinary
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a progressive dinner involves going from house to house, enjoying a different course at each location. With Progressive Eats, a theme is chosen each month, members share recipes suitable for a delicious meal or party, and you can hop from blog to blog to check them out.
We have a core group of 12 bloggers, but we will always need substitutes and if there is enough interest would consider additional groups. To see our upcoming themes and how you can participate, please check out the schedule at Creative Culinary or contact Barb for more information.