Jeff Stauch began baking bread two years ago with his girlfriend, Ashley. At first it was just a fun project — Ashley had grown up with fresh, home-baked bread around the house, and the two wanted to see if they could learn the skill.
“I was frankly surprised that we didn’t get discouraged,” he said. “The first several tries were definitely something you wouldn’t want to present at a party. It was just by accident, but we stuck with it until something turned out perfect.”
Since the spring of 2008, Ashley has left for graduate school in Indiana, and Jeff is still in Vermont, working as a gifts officer for College Advancement at Middlebury College. But before and after work and on the weekends, Jeff is still baking up a storm in his Middlebury kitchen.
He’s had help along the way — his first recipes were from a friend, Casey, who works as a dessert chef in southern Vermont. And he’s developed a collection of go-to bread books. The first is The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, which he says taught him many of the bread-baking techniques and practices that he comes back to again and again. His other two favorites are Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart.
He spoke of all of these writers as friends.
“Bernard is like your advocate in the kitchen,” he explained. “Peter can be a little condescending. He’s definitely grading you.”
So once you’ve got your references (could be a book, could be a website), finding the occasional weekend day to set aside for bread baking is certainly an option. But what about when you don’t have the time to sit at home and wait for your dough to rise?
The trick, said Jeff, is knowing how to manipulate the yeast — either by finding the right recipe, or by learning how to change it to your specifications. For this, Jeff has found the Reinhart book to be helpful.
“It teaches you tricks for how to manipulate time,” he said. “That’s a very useful thing for people who have trouble fitting bread into their day.”
Some recipes have refrigeration built right into them — at a certain point, the dough goes into the refrigerator to rise, which slows the yeast’s activity, allowing for a longer rise before it gets too yeasty. And there are other factors you can manipulate — some breads rise at higher temperatures, some use more flour, some more liquid. It’s all about finding the right strategy.
Plus, changing the timing can change your bread in unexpected ways.
“A lot of the overnight recipes are really fun because they’re really tasty,” he said. “You’ve allowed the flour and yeast to interact in a way that it wouldn’t going at full speed at room temperature.”
In the end, though, no matter how much time you spend poring over bread books, there’s a lot that you just can’t learn by reading a book.
“You do learn how to feel the dough and listen to what it’s telling you, in terms of its moisture content and elasticity. And you get to know the space in which you’re working,” said Jeff. “Bread is very dependent upon the conditions.”
And yes, maybe making the hundreds of loaves it takes to really understand the process is a lot more work than running to the store and grabbing a loaf of bread. But to Jeff, it’s not just about that.
“Making bread is a sensual thing. It’s meditative,” he said. “It’s different for different people, but the more you handle the dough, the more comfortable you become with it.”
Casey's Famous Cool-Rise Bread
Makes 2 loaves or 1 big impressive one)
•5 1/2 cups all purose flour
•2 pkgs. active dry yeast
•2 Tbsp. sugar
•1 Tbsp. salt
•1/4 cup soft butter
•2 1/4 cups hot tap water
Combine 2 c. flour, undissolved yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir to blend.
Add softened butter.
Add hot (but not too hot) tap water all at once to ingredients in bowl.
Beat by hand or with electric mixer for 2 minutes, then add 1 c. flour.
Beat with mixer 1 minute until thick and elastic.
By hand stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough that leaves the sides of the bowl. Turn onto a floured board and knead 5 to 10 minutes.
Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel . Let rest for 20 minutes, then punch down.
Divide into 2 portions . Knead and make into 2 loaves —or I roll it out, braid it and make it into a big circular shape on a cookie sheet -greased of course. Anyway if you make 2, put into greased pans. Brush surface with oil.
Cover loosely with plastic (it need space to rise) and put in fridge for 2 -24 hours. When you're ready to bake, remove from fridge, uncover and let stand for 10 minutes while pre-heating oven to 400.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, till done. This isn't exact — when it starts to smell really good, check it. If it slides out of the pan easily and sounds hollow when you tap the bottom, it is done.
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.