Friday, January 1, 2010

Rescuing the Bread Machine, 1.0: Four Ingredient French Bread

Happy New Year! Let's get 2010 started off right, with a quickie project that can net big financial returns (on a percentage basis, anyway).  Let's make Four Ingredient French Bread.

I can hear the groans.  If you aren't making your own bread already, you are no doubt deterred by the whole knead-and-rise cycle, and I don't blame you.  I absolutely hate the process of turning the dough out onto the counter to knead it at least twice per loaf, and I really hate cleaning the flour up off the counter or cutting board or whatever I decided to use.  Somehow, this bit of the process always makes me feel that I'm tied to my kitchen for the entire day.  ("Nope, sorry, you'll have to go to the movies without me; it is baking day!")

Enter the bread machine.  Remember that Christmas, probably about 20 years ago at this point, that everyone got their bread machines?  I know your family had one:  the year that every present under the tree seemed to be the same large, heavy cube, and everyone took turns exclaiming in glee over their new toy that would ensure fresh baked bread every day.

Wrong.  The thing is, most of those bread machine recipes turned out to be very complex (I remember buying a huge box of powdered milk, because my machine required something like a tablespoon of the stuff per loaf of white bread.  Good thing that stuff is shelf stable.), and if you did manange to hang in, you got one of those oddly crispy-all-around square loaves with the little divot in the bottom where the mixing paddle sat.  No thanks.

But now, I want you to go into the attic or the basement, and retrieve that bread machine.  If you sold yours, I'm sure your mom, your brother, or your Aunt Gertrude isn't as organized as you, so borrow theirs.  And then, find the "dough" cycle.

Dust off that bread machine!

Most of these machines have an option in which you can use them to just mix and knead the dough and let it rise.  If yours doesn't, you can still complete this recipe; just use the "white" or "light" bread cycle, and take the dough out before the baking cycle begins.  You will need:

3 cups white flour
1 cup water (plus or minus a tablespoon or two, depending on the humidity in your house)
1 T. bread machine (fast acting) yeast
1 t. salt

That's it.  Now throw all that in the machine's hopper, set it for "dough," and walk away.

Here are the dry ingredients in place.

My dough cycle runs for an hour and 30 minutes.  Sometime at about the halfway point, once I know the ingredients have been through the mix cycle and at least one rise, I take the dough out and put it in a greased bread pan or on a cookie sheet if I want more of a long, thin loaf.  Then I let the dough rise for the final time.

Sometime, I'm working and I completely forget about the bread, so it makes it through both rises in the machine and just sits there.  Big deal (unless you don't have the dough cycle -- then set yourself an egg timer so you don't forget to do something to the dough before it bakes); I just let it rise a third time in the baking vessel of choice.

Sometimes, I like to let my bread rise on the wood burning stove, just to feel extra-folksy.

When the bread has roughly doubled in size, pop it in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes, take it out, and enjoy.  If it is winter, don't forget to prop that oven door open while it cools off to let the heat escape into the house!

There are a couple of easy variations to this recipe that will increase the health value:
  • Experiment with specialty flours.  Right now, I like a mix of one cup each of white flour, light whole wheat flour, and oat flour.  This increases the whole grain content of the bread.
  • Add one tablespoon of flax seeds to increase the omega-3 fatty acid content.  They make a nice little crunch (kind of like the carraway seeds in rye), and the extra omega-3s help ward off depression, which is no joke around here when the days are so short and the sunlight so precious.
  • If you make your own cheese (Don't panic--we'll get there!), substitute one cup of the remaining whey for the water to increase the protein and use up more of that valuable and often-wasted whey.
The Assessment:

Fast:  Yep.  I timed this one out, and the entire process takes 2:12 with two rises of the bread.  Your involvement is 12 minutes:  I gave you a minute for each of the ingredients, a minute or two to take the bread out of the machine and put it in the baking vessel, and a minute to take it out of the oven.  I even gave you a minute to dust your bread machine.  If you have to venture into the attic or go to Aunt Gertrude's, you are going to have to view that as a sunk cost.

Cheap:  Again, yep.  I got my flour on sale this week for $1.74 for five pounds, which works out to 13.2 cents per cup by weight.  Three cups is therefore 39.6 cents.  Figure on two or three cents for the salt, and a cent or two for your water costs.  I don't have a price handy on the bread machine yeast, but store brand by the jar certainly isn't any more than 30 cents a tablespoon, so we can comfortably say that our loaf cost 75 cents or less.  The cheapest loaf of white bread I could find this week at the store without the dreaded high fructose corn syrup was $2.39, meaning you can bake three loaves for the price of one store-bought.  If you use one of the variations, the loaf will cost somewhat more, but then you would have to compare your product to the price of specialty breads, and you will still come out ahead.

Good:  Have you tasted homemade bread?  Or smelled it baking?  This loaf wins this contest hands down.  You know exactly what you put in it, so you know exactly what is entering your body and exiting your pocketbook.  That's a great way to start the year.
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