Q: I have never made bread. It intimidates me. I don't have a lot of time, but I would like to make bread. I wondered if you had suggestions for bread-making machines. I don't know much about them. What should I know to start me off?
Lynne: I am fiercely opinionated on the subject of bread machines. I think they are nice toys, but please don't make bread in them.
A basic rule of thumb: build your bread around your life instead of building your life around making bread. Years ago when I was studying cooking in Italy, another woman in my class was just starting to cook, and she took recipes very literally. The recipe told her she had to knock down the bread dough effort after it had risen after an hour, so she took the bread dough to the beauty parlor with her. She didn't realize that it could just sit there and go on forever!
First, get yourself a good book on breads. I recommend Dan Leader's By Bread Alone, anything by Bernard Clayton, or Nancy Silverton's Breads from La Brea Bakery.
You are going to need yeast, water, and salt. The slower you rise your bread, the better the flavor is going to be. The first thing you want to do is to take about two cups of cool water, a half envelope of dry yeast and about 3 cups of flour. Stone-ground, organic, all-purpose flour is the best. In Minnesota, you can find these flours at natural food coops. In other states you will find stone-ground flours in health food stores or coops, if you have them. Beat these ingredients into a batter. Do this at night. Let the batter sit overnight, covered with seran wrap. You're making a sponge, that's going to mature and give your bread good flavor.
The next morning or the next night take that mixture and add a tablespoon of salt to it and enough flour to make a soft dough that's a little bit sticky. By the way, you can add some whole wheat flour, wheat germ or oats, as long as it's no more than a cup of those ingredients. Make a dough that is a little sticky but soft. Knead the dough on a floured board for ten minutes. Beat the you-know-what out of it. Use it to get your frustrations out. Put it into a big, oiled bowl and cover it again with sedan wrap. Let it rise for two hours or so--until it's double or triple in bulk. At this point, you can let the dough sit for 6 or 8 hours. That's your first rise. It's the second rise that really needs close attention. Knock down the bread, knead it and form it into one or two loaves, preheat your oven to about 400 degrees. Set the bread on a greased baking sheet; sprinkle it with flour first; cover it with a towel; set it out at room temperature. Let it
rise until you can stick your finger in it, and it springs back to no more than an eighth of an inch. That's how you can tell the bread is just about fully risen. It can take anywhere from one and a half to two hours. If it over rises on the first round, that's ok but not on the second round. Slip it into the oven and bake it for about an hour. You can tell the bread is done when you tap the bottom of it and it sounds very hollow.