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I already talked about my obsession with making sourdough starter, something that I felt the urge to try right about the time California’s governor directed us to stay home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As someone who’s already worked from home since the last Great Recession, staying home wasn’t a big deal for me.
However, it was a big deal to not see my family and friends. It was a big deal to not go out to eat; to not meet up with people over a meal, or a glass of wine. It was a big deal to not work in my antique-mall booth, or shop at thrift stores. It didn’t take long before a million little things added up to one very big deal. For me, when the going gets stressful, I head for the kitchen for a little cooking therapy.
That’s why, as a distraction; something to look forward to, I started experimenting with making and growing my own sourdough starter. I wrote about that. I will write about it again, with an update about Eve, my starter. (Credit for my starter’s name goes to Rhonda Johnson, married to ANC’s own Hal Johnson, whose entertainment column we miss dearly.)
Anyway, I won’t talk about Eve today, despite the fact that Eve’s high-maintenance, and kind of a handful. Sure, she’s quiet, and not too demanding, but she does require attention in order to perform. She’s funny. If I don’t feed her, she gets moody and hoochy and goes on strike. We’ve come to an understanding, and I think I’ve figured Eve out. More about that later.
Today, as promised, I’ll share a recipe for a super simple yeast bread, something that is so easy that my grandchildren – ages 9 and 7 – literally did it all by themselves after I gave them a plastic bin that included the directions, and everything else they needed, except water: Flour. Salt. Yeast. That’s it.
OK, sure, if you want to get a little creative, you can use whole wheat flour, and add in flax seed, or sunflower seeds, but for our purposes today, to keep things simple, it’s just white flour, salt, yeast and water.
No pressure if your bread doesn’t turn out perfect the first time. As I tell my grandchildren, practice makes better.
While sourdough can take many hours – days, even – and can be somewhat finicky, my refrigerator yeast bread is about as instant-gratification as it gets, I mean, other than buying bread. But this will taste so much better than some processed bread that features an arm’s length of chemicals and preservatives. And the house will smell like yeast bread. And what the heck, you may not have to worry about buttoning jeans and venturing out in public for a while yet, so go ahead, bake the bread, slather it with butter and call it good.
I’ve never figured why so many people are so intimidated by yeast. It’s relatively inexpensive. (I buy mine at Moore’s Flour Mill in Redding.) I mean, it’s not like ruining a $100 prime rib roast or something. If you mess up, you’re out some flour, salt and yeast. That’s why I say do not fear the yeast. Yeast is your friend. Except dead yeast. Dead yeast is not your friend. But to test whether your yeast is dead or alive – friend or foe – sprinkle some in a bowl of lukewarm water. If it gets foamy, then it’s alive and well. If if just sits there and looks like dirty dishwater, it’s dead. Don’t proceed with the recipe until you get some live yeast. Once you bring it home, extend its lifespan by keeping it in the refrigerator.
For this recipe, I like using a plastic container to keep my dough, like one of those clear plastic shoe boxes. Even though it has a lid, which is convenient, I still cover the bin with plastic wrap so air doesn’t sneak in and form a skin on top of the dough. Then, for added coverage, I snap on the lid and keep the whole thing in the refrigerator. If you don’t have a plastic bin, find a bowl or other container that you can tightly cover. (If you cover it with plastic, mist the underside of the plastic with a non-stick spray to keep it from sticking to the wet dough.)
The neat thing about this recipe is that you have enough dough to make about three loaves, but not all at once. You may leave the container in the refrigerator and pinch off as much as you like to make bread whenever you want. The dough will last in the refrigerator for about a week.
As an aside, it’s starting to heat up here in Redding, so I suggest you start your bread early in the morning, so you don’t heat up the house in the middle of the day. Or crank up the AC and don’t worry about it.
Let me know how your bread turns out. Don’t stress about it. Just go with the dough.
Refrigerator Yeast Bread
4 cups bread flour (all-purpose is OK, if that’s what you’ve got; you can also use whole-wheat flour)
3 teaspoons dry yeast
1 Tablespoon salt
3 cups warm water (think of baby bath-water temperature)
Dump all the dry ingredients into the container and stir with a big, sturdy spoon. Using your spoon, make a well in the dry ingredients, and pour the water into it. Stir the mixture well, until it’s all incorporated. The dough will be very wet.
Cover the container and set on the counter for a few hours. Put it in the refrigerator. If you plan to make bread that day, let it sit in the refrigerator for at least two hours. (You may leave it in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
To make one loaf of bread, remove about 1/3 of the dough from the container and place the hunk of dough on a lightly floured surface. Return the container to the refrigerator.
A word about the pan. I like to bake bread inside a Dutch oven, or any other oven-proof pot, because it acts like a mini bread oven, and it makes a nice round loaf. But it’s fine to use a loaf pan, a cast-iron pan, or even a cake pan; just something to contain the dough and give it a place to grow. <
Use your floured hands to gently shape the dough into a ball, folding and tucking and coaxing any unsightly edges under the ball, and pinching the rough edges along the bottom with your fingers. Add enough flour to the board to keep it from sticking to your hands and board too much, but this is a moist dough. Too much flour will make the bread tough.
Lightly oil the bottom of your pan, and place the dough in the pan, ugly side down. Cover the pan lightly with a clean towel, and let the dough rise for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until double in size.
Note: If you want to get a little fancy, take a sharp knife or razor blade and gently score the bread, so it will have some decoration on top of the loaf. You can also sprinkle some course salt in the wet gashes. Otherwise, leave the bread alone, and it will have a beautiful smooth top.
Place pan in center of a preheated 350-degree oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes.
If you have an instant-read thermometer, it’s done at 200 degrees. Otherwise, look for a golden color, and tap on the loaf, and listen for a hollow sound. The bread should have pulled away from the sides of the pan slightly.
Immediately transfer the loaf to a rack (or it will sit in the pan and the condensation will give the bread a soggy bottom). Let it cool a little before slicing.