A Simpleton’s Guide to the Staff of Life

Hello and welcome to Week 7! This week, we’re investigating simple recipes for home-made bread.

There’s something about bread. The best cook I know is an engineering technologist by day, but he thinks that bread is too complicated and scientific to try making it. My Mom’s generation will tackle pastries, pies and cookies with abandon, but also dismiss bread as too much work. Granted, there is a practical angle. When you look at the price of store-bought bread, it’s difficult to justify all the kneading and punching and messing about that traditional breadmaking requires.

And yet … like good cheese, good bread is one of life’s simple joys. And there’s nothing as good as bread that’s been lovingly made by hand. I know that there’s an easier way, because I’ve actually done it.

When I was in college, I owned a little cookbook of bread recipes. The only one I ever tried was a batter bread. It used yeast, but there was no kneading or rising or anything. My recollection is that you just did something to the yeast, mixed up the batter and popped it into a pan. The final product was a little dense, but I loved that bread.

Time marches on. I moved several times and — of course – the cookbook disappeared along the way. For this week’s life hack, I decided to try and find a replacement for the lost batter bread recipe. My home library turned up one cookbook that had a contender called “English Muffin Bread” but nothing that sounded quite like the bread I used to make. Eventually I turned to the internet and located “White Velvet Batter Bread” on epicurious.com. (You bake it in old coffee cans, which sounded so retro and cute.)

However, while I was looking through the stacks, I also found a book called “No Need To Knead” with the subtitle “Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes”. The author, Suzanne Dunaway, owns Buona Forchetta Handmade Breads in Los Angeles. She also writes beautifully. I got completely lost in her romantic, enchanting prose about the wonders of Italian breads — and her encouraging words about how simple it would be to make fantastic bread using her radical methods. I was hooked. Suzanne’s basic focaccia recipe became the third contender.

With this small fistful of possibilities, I set up the Library Life Hack makeshift test kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. Here are the results:

White Velvet Batter Bread
Time to Mix Up
50 minutes (this included getting it into the coffee cans)
Time to Rise
About 60 minutes
Time to Bake
45 minutes
Final Results
The sweetest and densest of the three. Went very nicely with honey and would probably make a great base for fruit bread. Very little crust, though, because of the coffee can.
If You Try This
I broke my “no kneading” rule on this bread. I just couldn’t figure out how to get the final half-cup of flour worked into the dough, so I put the spoon down and used my hands. (The recipe talks about stirring it with “100 vigorous strokes”. I don’t know how you “vigorously stir” something that has become a bowling ball of dough.) By the way, if you don’t have coffee cans laying around, the reviews say that you can make it in a normal loaf pan too.

English Muffin Bread
Time to Mix Up
35 minutes (this included getting it arranged into loaf pans to rise)
Time to Rise
45 min
Final Results
The closest to the batter bread of my college days. Dense, but not as dense as the White Velvet, with a really nice crust. Very nice-looking and tasted great with honey and with cheese.

Suzanne Dunaway’s Basic Focaccia
Time to Mix Up
18 minutes (of course, by now I was getting the hang of it, so I was a lot faster)
Time to Rise
About an hour (this rises in the bowl for 40 minutes and then rises in the baking pan for another 20)
Time to Bake
About 30 minutes
Final Results
The prettiest of the three with a wonderfully chewy crust and a European taste. Still a little dense, but I believe that was actually my fault. I think I needed to let it rise in the bowl a little longer.
If You Try This
Pay careful attention to her instructions about not over-stirring the dough, and let it rise until it’s genuinely doubled in volume.

Scientific Conclusion
The Library Life Hack Simpleton Award needs to go to the English Muffin Bread, which worked perfectly right out of the gate. But … if you’re keen to learn how to bake really great bread (still without investing a ton of time), I think Suzanne Dunaway’s your girl. I want to try her basic focaccia recipe a few more times and see what kind of results I get. My hunch is there’s great potential in there that just needs to be unlocked with a little experience.

Library Resources
Here are the details on this week’s books:

Taste of Home Baking Book
Published by Reader’s Digest Association
Released in 2007
ISBN 0898215285

No Need to Knead
Written by Suzanne Dunaway
Published by Hyperion
Released Nov 10, 1999
ISBN 0786864273

As For the Numbers
Both of the books I used this week are actually no longer in print. A new copy of the “Taste of Home Baking Book” can still be bought for $14.29 and up from the booksellers at amazon.ca And the original version of “No Need to Knead” is still available on chapters.indigo.ca at $36.95. (It was re-released in late 2011 as “No Need to Knead: Handmade Artisan Breads in 90 Minutes” and can be purchased from amazon.ca for $36.79.)

I didn’t track the cost of my ingredients, because I just don’t think there’s any point in trying to compare the cost of store-bought bread with homemade. Keeping track of the time involved is more important in this case. So … based on the savings involved in borrowing books instead of buying them, this week’s life hack is worth $51.24. Cha-ching!

And that’s it. Do you have a favourite easy-bake bread recipe that you want to share? Leave a comment below or send me a note at LibraryLifeHack [at] gmail.com. And make sure you come back next Tuesday, when we’ll find out if it’s possible to knit a good-looking sweater in a weekend. Have a great week, everyone!

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4 thoughts on “A Simpleton’s Guide to the Staff of Life

  1. Great job! I like the coffee can idea. Do you think it would work for people with kids who don’t like crusts? Or is it this recipe only? French bread is also very easy to make, if you ever revisit this idea. I would also recommend (although I don’t know if the library has a copy) The Tassajara Bread Book. Tassajara is the San Francisco Zen Center’s retreat and the author really explains what you are doing when you build a bread so you have an idea of which way to go if your dough isn’t exactly the same as the book’s. Things like altitude and humidity make a difference but most books don’t mention them. I find the problem with making bread is that I then actually eat it!!

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    • Thanks, Leslie! I’ve seen coffee can bread now and again over the years. (I used to have a Ukrainian landlord whose wife would bake us a sweet bread every Easter in coffee cans. It was delicious!) I think it would be well worth experimenting with if your kids didn’t like crusts.
      Our library doesn’t have the Tassajara Bread Book but I see it’s available at Edmonton Public and has good reviews. I also read “The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking” a few years ago — I’ve never made any of the recipes but I loved the way the author created a spiritual practice through his breadmaking.

      P.S. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eating bread. : )

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