Sometime early in the 1950’s, my father’s work week began ending at noon on Saturdays. For the first few years, we treasured those extra hours. In the summer we went fishing or berry picking on most of those Saturday afternoons.
One time when we had the canoe and the cane poles strapped on the car and plenty of worms in coffee cans to tempt the bluegills, my sister Barbara announced that she wanted to stay home. Since she was only eleven years old, my parents were a bit hesitant to leave her alone, but I had been babysitting my siblings for an hour or two at that age when Mom and Dad went shopping or paid a quick visit to friends.
After Mom determined that Barb was not sick but just wanted to stay home, off we went while Barb waved goodbye from the front porch. However, as soon as we were out of sight, she was back in the house and in the kitchen with a cookbook open to a bread recipe.
She had been plotting for days to surprise us with two loaves of freshly baked bread when we came home from our fishing trip.
Alas, things did not go as planned. When we pulled into the yard later that afternoon, we found my sister in tears. In place of two golden loaves sitting proudly on a rack were two brown bricks that looked like the ones in our chimney.
When Barb wailed, “They just wouldn’t rise, so I hoped they would when I baked them,” Mom knew right away what had happened.
“You just had the water for the yeast a little too hot, honey,” she explained. “I’ll help you tomorrow, and you’ll see how it’s done.”
Gradually the tears subsided, and Mom and Dad started cleaning the fish. That was when Barb brought up another problem.
“What should we do with my bread?” she asked.
“Why don’t you give it to Nugget?” suggested my father. Nugget was my dog, half white spitz and half cocker spaniel, who would eat anything set before him. He had jaws like an alligator and could turn a ham bone into crumbs in an hour when he was hungry. And he always seemed hungry.
So Barb brought out the two bricks and put them next to Nugget’s bowl by the back porch. When she called him he came over in a flash, ready for an appetizer before tackling the main course of fish heads. Yes, he did eat fish heads as well as chicken bones and unidentifiable things he brought home from expeditions in the neighborhood.
He got his jaws around a brick and tried biting off a piece, then he put it down and tried to get a better purchase on it. He tried licking on it and nipping off a corner. Nothing worked. Finally he gave up and went back to sit next to the fish cleaning table.
Barb burst into tears again. That was when I was moved to an act of generosity that surprises me even today. Instead of making the kind of snide remark you might expect from an older brother, I said, “Hey sis, let’s take them down to the worm bed and bury them for the worms. They’ll eat the bread, and Mom will help you make another batch.”
My father had set me up in the fishing worm business two years before, complete with two signs that advertised CHUCK’S WORMS with some pretty well-drawn angle worms wriggling on a black background and white arrows pointing the way to the house. Barb and I picked out a spot on the edge of the worm bed where I had recently been digging, and we dug two holes close together, one for each brick. By the time I began digging in that part of the worm bed the following spring, the bricks were gone, and the worms looked especially healthy.
Mom taught Barb how to test the water on the inside of her wrist to make sure it wasn’t too hot before she dissolved the yeast and how to bake bread, and my sister turned into a pretty good cook. The bread recipe below is not my mother’s, however, as I don’t think that she ever wrote one down.
When I was growing up, she made four loaves at a time or often three loaves and one pan of dinner rolls. She dissolved the yeast in a cup of water and let it proof, mixed it with a quart of milk in her big bread bowl, and stirred in shortening, salt, sugar and scoops of flour from the flour bin. The shortening was usually melted lard, but she sometimes used Crisco.
The result was a slightly sweet, flavorful loaf that we kids thought was okay but not as good as the Wonder Bread she sometimes bought at the A & P. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I understood why my friends raved over Mom’s bread when they rode the bus home with me to visit. Her bread had a lot more flavor and body than the spongy stuff that I used to think was so good. If you follow this recipe you will discover what I mean.
1/2 cup water
2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
2 cups milk
2 T shortening
2 T sugar
1 T salt
6 to 6 1/2 cups flour
Making bread means working the dough with your hands, so pretend that you are a surgeon and scrub thoroughly before you start.
Dissolve the yeast with a quarter teaspoon of sugar in a half cup of warm water. Test the water as if you were checking the temperature of the formula in a baby bottle. The water should feel just barely warm when you shake a drop on the inside of your wrist. Set the yeast aside to proof, which means that it will begin foaming if the yeast is alive and active. If it has not started to foam in seven or eight minutes, the water was most likely too hot and killed the yeast.
Melt the shortening in a half cup of milk either in a cup in the microwave or in a small pan on the range. Pour the hot milk and shortening into a large bowl. Add the sugar, salt and the rest of the milk.
With a wooden spoon stir in a cup of flour to make a smooth batter. Check to make sure that the mixture is not too hot, then stir in the yeast. Add flour a cup at a time and stir vigorously. After you have added five cups of flour the mixture should start to look like dough. Stir in another half cup. If the dough sticks to the spoon and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, you have added enough flour. If not, add another quarter to half a cup.
Once the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, let it sit in the bowl for five minutes or so. Flour a work surface generously and use a spatula to scrape the dough from the bowl onto the floured surface. Use the spatula or a baker’s scraper to turn the dough until the surface is coated with flour.
Now begins the fun part. Powder your hands with flour and press down on the dough. Turn half the dough over on the other half with the spatula and press the dough down again. You may need to repeat this procedure a couple of times until you can start turning the dough with your hands. You are now kneading the dough.
If you have never kneaded bread dough, Wikihow has an excellent lesson on how to do it.
Knead the dough for at least eight minutes, sprinkling flour on the work surface as needed, but try not to knead too much flour into the dough. When the dough feels smooth and satiny, form it into a ball and let it rest while you grease the bowl in which you mixed the dough with lard or vegetable shortening. If you scraped the bowl thoroughly when you transferred the dough to the work surface, you don’t need to wash it. A little flour or dough on the surface of the bowl will not hurt anything.
Put the dough into the bowl and turn it to grease the entire surface. Dampen a dish towel and cover the bowl. Set it in a warm place and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in bulk. This will take from an hour to over two hours, depending on how warm it is in your kitchen.
Grease two 5 x 9 inch loaf pans. Punch down the dough to deflate it and turn it out on a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough for a minute, then divide it in half and form two loaves. Put one in each pan, cover the pans with the damp towel and allow the dough to rise until it is even with the top of the pans.
Preheat the oven to 400º when the dough nears the top of the pans.
Put the pans on the center shelf of the oven. After ten minutes, lower the heat to 350º and bake another twenty minutes until the loaves are golden brown on top and sound hollow when you tap them. Tip the loaves out of the pans onto the oven rack and tap the bottoms, which should also sound hollow. If they don’t, continue baking the loaves on the rack for another five to ten minutes.
Cool the loaves on a rack. If you want, you can brush a little butter on top of the hot loaves to make a shiny crust.
NOTES: As you can see, basic bread is really pretty simple with only seven ingredients that you mix together and bake. If you think that learning to knead dough is too difficult, consider the fact that you probably learned to tie your shoes before you went to kindergarten. Tying shoes is a lot harder than kneading dough.
But if kneading dough is not difficult, making beautiful even loaves is a trick that I have not mastered yet. And I have trouble dividing the dough in half, so I often end up with one very large and one small loaf. They all taste good, however, so it does not really matter.
Jerri’s mother taught her to divide the dough in half, then divide each half and make four balls of dough. Put two balls in each pan to form the loaf. It works well for her, but I am stubborn.
If you’re a perfectionist and keep practicing you will end up with a loaf that might win you a blue ribbon at the county fair.
We buy our yeast in bulk and measure what we need from a jar. One package of active dry yeast is about 2 1/4 teaspoons. For the shortening you can use lard, vegetable shortening or butter. I use sea salt when I make bread, but regular iodized salt works fine. You can use either all-purpose or bread flour.