I bake. I can make the most elegant and elaborate of desserts. I cook appetizers. I experiment with entrees. I make five course meals from scratch. I’ve been vegetarian, vegan, and even raw for a while. I’ve milked my own cow’s milk. But I have, at least I had, never baked my own bread until a few weeks ago.
Baking bread is one of those things that really can define a cook or chef or baker. It’s not only dealing with recipes and ingredients and things that lie flat on your counter top, rather it’s dealing with a living, breathing, eating monster that you keep punching down in the middle of it’s growth just to make it even fluffier. It’s something that requires your full attention, and yet a lot of waiting time. Baking bread is that something that I used to be envious of. How exactly did people spend days on end baking a good loaf of bread? I mean, how did they make it?
I had friends in college that would leave in the middle of a study session to go home to adjust the rising bread, adding some sugar to help the yeast feed a little more. I have a friend that used to sell her own freshly baked bread in college for, what I can only imagine, a good profit.
Envious no more, I recently attempted to make my own bread. It would be the first time I had gotten over my fear of baking bread. O! The holiest of holy in terms of foundational baking! And what a place to do it, in Korea, where ovens are hard to find, and regular flour is almost non-existent. Yeast, on the other hand, is in some convenience stores. What are Koreans using yeast for if not bread?
But to my surprise, making this bread was easy, and everything I romanticized it to be. Soothing, methodical, meditative, rewarding, and above all, delicious.
In the past I’d looked at recipes wondering how I would figure out how hot the water was, because temperature is everything for yeast. I had also wondered if I had fed the little monsters enough sugar to eat through all the flour. This time I just threw caution to the wind, and accepted that I might be wasting a bag of flour on my attempt. You win some, and you lose some, right? For this occasion, I brought out my trusty recipe book (and one of two books I brought to Seoul), Laurel’s Kitchen. It told me that the water needed to be about 100 degrees. So, testing the water out with my finger-thermometer (see: I had no thermometer), I dumped the water, sugar, and yeast together and watched it foam. A good sign.
The recipe was simple, and suggested a few kneads over the coarse of the rising process. Maybe a few rises and punches. Then a stint in the oven (which, at that time, was still my toaster oven) until it was “a rich golden brown.” Finally “Allow the bread to cool, then slice and serve.”
“Cooling time” has never existed in my baking vocabulary. Well, that’s not completely true seeing as for special occasions I’ll pre-bake something like a carrot cake, or Key Lime pie, and let it set up properly. For my own consumption, I generally dig in.
This time was no different. I made three loaves, one by one. By the time the last was done, the first was gone. I had help, no doubt, but it was a valiant effort on both of our parts to put that loaf away in under an hour as the winter wind chattered on the windows and a cup of hot chocolate sat in my cup. The loaf was everything I wanted out of a basic bread. The outside was crunchy and oven kissed with a golden brown, almost chestnut brown hue. The inside was chewy, fluffy, and airy — something I was more than proud of. The taste was soulful insofar as it was basic, but heart warming. The perfect vehicle for a good slab of butter, jam, or, my very favorite, honey.
There is always something about making your own food, and that stands for breads to breakfast to dinner. It’s always a little more rewarding and a little more satisfying for your mind and tongue to know that you, yourself, provided your stomach with sustenance.