"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight." - M. F. K. Fisher
"[Breadbaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells... there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread." ~M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
The calming rythmique motion of kneading is toning your muscles, but this time you're not lost in the beat of the song, or counting the seconds until your work-out ends. Embracing this old world tradition means listening to your heart and soul and conversing with the dough.
"My friends are constantly asking me, 'Nancy what's your secret? How do you stay looking so young?' I just tell them it's three things. Drink lots of water. Stay out of the sun. And be a good girl." - My Grammie (oh, and that good girl comment... she means no smoking or drinking - just in case you didn't get that ;)
I remember my Grammie teaching me to pull the rolls when I was only a child. I reached my double washed hand into the gigantic metal bowl where the freshly risen dough awaited. The dough was warm and soft and retreated at my touch. Grammie showed me how she choked the bulging dough catching the air bubbles before they could collapse. "The less you touch the dough the fluffier your rolls will be." My tiny hand had already squeezed the life out of the bit of dough I managed to pull off. "Like this," she said, "You open your hand wide, and sneak up on the bread with your thumb and forefinger." I was miserable, as I tried desperately to make a perfect ball of untouched dough, so smooth and taught as Grammie had.
I never practiced making my own bread until I was grown and on my own. My first batch was ruined because I played with each ball of dough until each bubble collapsed. But Grammie's tender lesson eventually came back to me, and I trace her finger movements now with grown-up hands.
I've had to call her from time to time seeking advice. One year during the rising process the dough turned to soup, yuck! Help! Seeing that I was living 5000 miles away, I surprised my Grammie out of her stockings when I called for a quick troubleshooting session and laughed and chatted as we caught up over the phone. I learned that the temperature was too hot (I thought I set the temperature to 50°F - it was actually set to 50°C !!!) and it killed the yeast. Add a little bit more flour and you can make a heavier loaf bread, great with bits of cheese and bacon baked into it. Another year, my dough wouldn't rise after many hours and I learned that if the temperature is too low - simply turn up the heat, and with more time the bread will rise as expected.
If you form a loop with your thumb and forefinger and look through the hole. Imagine that you will need to pull a bubble of dough (the size of a ping-pong ball) slowly drawn through the inside of this hole, thus creating a taut baby-bottom smooth outside surface while not popping the little air pockets that reside inside your bread.
To accomplish this you open your circle as wide as it will go and hover above the surface of the bread, imagine the arch created by your hand to be the edges of a draw string bag. You gently loop a ball of dough, and slowly pinch your fingers together under this arch until your fingers meet and the little pouch of dough sits quietly on the back of your hand. There's nothing like that split second when your thumb and forefinger cross paths and begin to constrict the bottom of the ball until it breaks loose, and like cutting an umbilical cord, he is set free and balances peacefully.
Move the little round body onto a well buttered cooking sheet. Only handle the little rolls by their belly-button where several fragrant air pockets have already been sacrificed. Try not to touch any other surface of the bulging baby. Set it down gently belly-button side down. Keep them warm, so they can continue rising and re-puff after the trauma of being shaped into rolls.
- 3 pm - Add 2 packages of dry yeast and 2 tbsp (càs) of sugar to 1/2 cup (12cl) of warm water in a 40 cup (10L) Stainless steel mixing bowl. Mix and set aside for ten minutes. (away from any drafts)
- 3:10 pm - Add 1 rounded cup (215g) of sugar, 3 tsp (càc) salt, 1 cup (25cl) vegetable oil, 4 cups (1L) warm water, and 14 cups of flour - that's a five pound bag minus 2 cups or simply 2 kilo bags. Take off your rings, knead with your hands. The dough will be very sticky. Scrape all of the bits of flour off of the sides of the bowl (I like my rubber scrapper spatula for this) and stick them all together in the ball of dough you are forming in the middle of the bowl. Now you are going to oil the bowl. Over the bowl, pour vegetable oil into the palm of your hand. Smear the oil all over the inside of the bowl around and under the ball of dough. Loosely drape a large sheet of plastic wrap over the edge of the bowl and snuggly hug the baby ball of dough, and back up over the other edge of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a towel to keep it warm. Stow it comfortably in a warm place, but where it won't dry out. (I get the best results when my bowl is setting on top of the stovetop while I'm baking something else in the oven, so plan a big bake-ahead day and bake up a storm to keep the oven running and the room warm and moist.)
- 6 pm - Peek under the towel, the dough should have doubled in size. Lift the plastic wrap, roll up your sleeves and give the rising dough a big punch right in the middle. Watch it relax, the dough really takes on a personality at this point. Place the plastic wrap back over the bowl hugging the dough. Cover again with a towel, and continue to keep it cozy and warm.
- 9 pm - Slather 6 dozen muffin tins with a thick layer of butter. Uncover the big mountain of dough. Begin pinching off ping-pong ball sized puffs, and place three in each muffin tin, belly button side down. Reread the introduction for inspiration and reminder of how to pinch the dough. Cover each tray of muffin tins with a towel. Snuggle in a warm place overnight.
- 6 am - Bake your buns at 350°F for 15 - 20 minutes (176°C for 8 minutes in a convection oven)
- Tip the buns out onto a sheet of aluminum foil while they're still warm. To reheat your buns, wrap 20 in a large sheet of aluminum foil, crimp the edges, place in a hot oven. Serve toasty and hot.
- Grab a bun with two hands and tear it in half, it should open up like a flower revealing it's soft melt-in-your-mouth center. Serve with cold real butter.