I have been suffering from a bread problem: chronic disappointment when I go to cut a slice of bread the morning after I made it and I find my beautiful, soft bread has transformed during the night into a dense, tough hunk of bread, a bastardized version of its former self – a problem which I have now solved! But first: my Granny’s shed, and my first bread machine.
When I was in high school, my brother and my dad and I cleaned out the shed in the back yard at my Granny and Grandad’s house. An old metal shed, we had only ever peeked in, grabbing the odd CB radio parts or pair of crutches to play with. (I was an odd child. I liked to play with crutches, and I once stole fake glasses from my mom’s dresser and wore them to school, telling everyone that I now needed glasses – this was because another girl in class got glasses and THEY LOOKED SO CUTE! I just had to have glasses too. I got caught. I never wore them again. No one ever called me on my epic lie.)
Back to the shed. We decided, one day, to clean out the shed, a storage facility for items from my great-grandparents’ houses and loot from carport sales that my grandparents went to weekly. And as we pulled out layer upon layer of interesting treasures, we began laying claim to them. My dad called dibs on the dried, calcified whale’s rib bone and several glass buoys. My brother chose a few things for himself, though right now I can’t rightly remember what he claimed. Probably something historical – that would have fit his personality.
I claimed kitchen gadgets and tools: a doughnut mold pan, and an old bread machine, my first.
That bread machine was tall and cylindrical, with a paddle that swept in clean circles along the bottom of the pan, mixing and kneading the dough for me. There was a window on top of the contraption, through which I could see my bread dough being prepared, and the whole thing had a handle so that when I carried it, it looked like a bucket in which I could keep seashells, or cinnamon rolls – whatever I wanted.
I haven’t used a bread machine, let alone that first one, in years. But my interest in fresh, homemade bread has steadily increased. While I knew the benefits of homemade bread before, it was only after reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, that I really began my crusade on eating homemade bread. In the final chapters, Pollan details the list of ingredients in a loaf of Sara Lee bread from the supermarket. The bread has somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 ingredients.
Bread. 40 ingredients. Something is wrong there. Especially when you read the list and find that many of those ingredients are chemicals. Bread-makers have to churn out tasty, soft bread that will last on the shelves and at home. Of course it’s full of chemicals. But I don’t want to eat them.
And so, my bread-making spree began. I found a simple recipe for Amish white bread on allrecipes.com and began making that. Once I mastered that, I moved on, last week, to wheat berry bread, which was delicious and a little fancier. But I’ve been having a bread problem: the softness is gone by the next morning. What starts as a fresh, warm, soft loaf of bread is, by the morning, a firm, dense loaf that only gets firmer and denser as the days progress. Now, it’s homemade, it’s free of chemicals that are designed to keep the bread soft. I’m not crazy; but come on. 12 hours of softness? Something’s not right.
Indeed, it’s not. Because that Amish white bread was a simple recipe of sugar, oil, water, yeast, salt, and flour. Which is perfect, really. But it lacks fat. Fat binds things in that magical scientific way that ensures softness. And specifically, the fat I want is found through butter and eggs.
As my friend Jen put it, “Eggs and butter are the difference in everything.” Well said, friend, well said.
Last night, I tried out a new recipe for Amish Soft Honey Whole Wheat Bread, except it was raining and I was tired, and we only had all-purpose flour. Not bread flour. Not whole wheat. Just plain white flour. And dammit, I used it. I. Used. It.
And to great success! I tweaked the recipe a bit, which I found originally on Food.com and which the author said originally came from an Amish cookbook. I have a few tricks in mind to try the next time I make this bread, and there will be a next time. I made two loaves, one of which I made into cinnamon swirl bread; the other I left as just regular sandwich bread, which was delicious for lunch with chicken salad on it. We cut into this bread last night, and it was divine. I cut it this morning, and -BOOM- still soft. Eggs and butter. They work every time.
Amish Soft White Bread
Yields 2 loaves
2 cups warm water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Roughly 1 1/3 tablespoons yeast (I approximated the 1/3 tablespoon with a 1/2 tablespoon measurer)
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup honey (I only had 1/4 cup, so I substituted light brown sugar for the other 1/4 cup – worked just fine)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/3 tablespoons salt
7-8 cups flour (Bread flour is best, but all-purpose worked. Also might be worth trying a mix of Bread Flour and Whole Wheat Flour)
1. Mix water, yeast, and sugar and let sit until foamy (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, you can bring your eggs to room temperature by placing them in a bowl of warm water.
2. In a separate bowl, stir together softened butter, honey (or brown sugar), and salt, and mix until smooth. Add eggs one at a time and stir with wooden spoon until well combined.
3. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture and stir to combine.
4. Begin adding flour one cup at a time, stirring to incorporate flour until stirring becomes too difficult. At that point, empty dough out onto clean, floured surface and continue adding flour until your dough can be handled.
5. Knead 6-8 minutes, adding flour as necessary, until you get a smooth, elastic dough.
6. Place dough in an oiled bowl, turning dough over to make sure it is oiled all over. Cover and let rise in a warm place for one hour, or until doubled in size.
7. Punch down dough and knead briefly (maybe a minute) and then separate into two loaves. (See additional instructions below to make cinnamon swirl loaf.) Place loaves in oiled loaf pans and let rise until tripled in size (an hour to an hour and a half).
8. Bake at 375 for 25-28 minutes, or until a loaf sounds hollow when tapped. (Slide loaf out of pan onto oven mitt and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it’s done.)
9. Allow bread loaves to cool on a wire rack. Enjoy!
For Cinnamon Swirl loaves:
To make a cinnamon swirl loaf, follow all instructions above until #7. Take the dough for this loaf and roll it out on a clean, floured surface, into a rectangular shape that is no more than 8 inches wide (so it will fit into your pan). Brush rectangle with melted butter, and then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar mixture (1 part cinnamon to 3 parts sugar). Gently roll your dough, making sure you roll along the long side and not the short. Pinch and tuck ends to make sure sugar and cinnamon mixture does not leak out. Place loaf in pan, seam-side down. Resume regular instructions.