Randi Kreiss

Baking ‘wonder’ bread in anxious times

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To me, it is magic. But actually it’s chemistry.

You start with flour, water, salt and yeast and you produce fragrant, perfectly textured loaves of bread, tender on the inside, brown and crusty on the outside. It’s my own kind of “wonder” bread.

You use no machines and no heavy-duty kneading. Your investment is the price of flour, some time and one or two optional tools particular to the creation of artisanal bread. Of course, you can invest in fancy bread proofing baskets and mixing tubs, but I use whichever bowls and containers I have in my kitchen.

I fell fast and hard for baking bread, mostly out of necessity. No kidding. Family issues, political tension and the recent succession of tragic national events began to interfere with my usual Zen-like calm. OK, true, I don’t do Zen-like calm, but my heart was pounding with stress and I wasn’t sleeping until I found my bread guru.

My holy book is “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast,” by Ken Forkish. If you’ve never baked bread, or you’ve done it the old-fashioned way, as I did, get this book out of the library, or download it, or buy it. It will be the best 20 bucks you ever spent.

This is bread baking for non-bakers, for people who have young kids or full-time jobs. All the recipes can be tweaked to accommodate pretty much anyone’s schedule, and that’s because the rising of the bread is done in the refrigerator, overnight, when, it’s hoped, you’ll be sleeping. And you will be sleeping much better when you know you’ll wake up to two oven-ready loaves.

This method is therapeutic in that you absolutely must focus on the process. You cannot think about politics or your grandkids getting into college. It’s all chemistry: When you mix flour and water and yeast and salt in the right proportions, the reactions are predictable and quantifiable. And Forkish is exceedingly precise in the measurements he requires. So, you should pick up a small kitchen scale for measuring flour and water and a small thermometer for measuring water temperature. You can’t think about any distracting issues because there will be no room for them in your brain.

For example, if you could win the lottery by following a list of 10 detailed steps, would you be worrying about our southern border? Same principle applies here. When you bake bread this way, you’re all in, and it feels so good.

Basically, Forkish teaches readers how to bake eight breads, from white to whole wheat to levains, which require a homemade “starter.”

To give you an idea, for a basic white bread, you mix your carefully measured flour and water, let it sit and, depending on the instructions for each bread type, you gradually add more flour, water, salt and yeast and let your dough rise. There is no traditional kneading. No exotic ingredients. You work the dough with pincerlike movements using your thumb and forefinger. And there is “folding,” when you stretch out the dough and fold it over a few times. The process is elemental and physical, with your hands in the mix. The deliciousness is in the details.

I’ve learned a new vocabulary from Forkish, including “poolish” and “biga,” which are simple, homemade concoctions used to ferment part of the dough overnight, creating a tangy flavor.

I struggled to get through chemistry at NYU with a respectable C. Forkish has given me a great sense of accomplishment and confidence with his easy-to-follow recipes. Yo, I am the Madame Curie of bread baking.

These are recipes that ask you to measure in grams on a kitchen scale but allow you to convert to cups and use any measuring cup.  He teaches us that the rising breads are fully “proofed” when we stick a finger in the dough and it gradually bounces back. The process can be as low-tech as you want it to be. You put on some music and you start preparing your dough. Twelve to 14 hours later (mostly overnight), you bake the loaves for an hour and you’ve created the staff of life.

The preparation is the therapy, and then comes the reward: You get to eat it.

Can baking bread save my sanity when life events threaten my peace of mind? The jury isn’t in yet, but the down side is zero, and the upside is yummy bread and better living through chemistry.

Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.