One of the things I have learned from being a Graduate Student with an over-burdened schedule is that I am constant devising new coping tactics. Extreme stress will wear a body down to the point of collapse, and as a warrior on the front lines of enlightenment you are constantly needing to find ways to fight this.
My new method of stress-busting is baking.
It started as a whim. I’m a pretty amazing cook, but baking was an art which had always eluded me and scared me just a little. I didn’t know enough about the chemistry of it, I didn’t understand what I could and could not do to a recipe in order to change it. But a couple season of America’s Next Great Baker and some extreme dissertation stress later, I decided that it was high time I dipped my toes into the wide world of baking. After several experiments with cookies, scones, and muffins, I decided to try my hand at bread for the first time this week.
Here is the recipe that I used and here is what I learned making it:
I found this recipe on allrecipes.com (which, if you vet the reviews carefully, is a pretty solid source for such things).
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100 degrees F or 38 degrees C)
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer
1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt
all-purpose flour for dusting
1 tablespoon cornmeal
You start out with 1.5 tsp (or one packet) of active dry yeast. Yeast, as it turns out, comes in two varieties: active dry, and instant yeast. Instant yeast can be used directly in your bread recipe, active dry needs to be “proofed” or woken up first. For my experiment, I used active dry (which is, by the way, what the recipe calls for).
So yeast is actually an organism that feeds on the sugars in your bread dough and lets it rise (there’s a really good tutorial on working with yeast here). In order to wake up the yeast, dissolve the amount you need (for this recipe 1.5 tsp) into ½ cup warm water (for this recipe). When I say “warm”, I mean between 95 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit (about room temperature or slightly above). You can use a pinch of sugar in there as well to give the yeast some food. Cover with a towel and let sit in a nice warm place for 6-8 minutes. When you come back, the mixture should be bubbling; this is the CO2 that the yeast produces as a byproduct and it means the yeast is successfully woken. Or, in the words of bad Mary Shelley impersonators, “IT’S ALIVE!”
Once you do this, add half a cup of flour to yeast mixture. Stir together, cover again, and let sit in a warm dark place for half an hour. Yeast likes dark and warmth to do its best work; if it gets too cold or too bright, the dough won’t rise properly and you’ll be left with a big hunk of flat, solid bread.
Next add the beer. You want one 12-oz can/bottle (I used Blue Moon pumpkin because… well.. obviously). Stir it into the mix, and add four cups of flour and 1.5 tsp salt. This will form a thick dough that will stick to the sides of the bowl. Cover it again, and allow it to rise for 2 hours. It should double in size at that time. Again, make certain your kitchen is nice and warm so that little diva yeast can do its business.
On a well-floured surface (that means a good sprinkling, not cakes and cakes of flour), pour out your dough blob. Scrape down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula in order to get the most dough possible into your blog. Flour your hands a bit and form the mound into loaf-shape, then place it on a baking sheet covered in a thin dusting of cornmeal. Sprinkle the entire darn thing with more flour, cover, and let rise for 30-40 minutes. Again with the dark, again with the warm.
You want to preheat your oven to 425 and place on the bottom rack a shallow oven-proof dish filled with water (I used a small pyrex). This will humidify the oven and ensure that your bread comes out nice and crusty.
Slit the loaf down the middle with a knife or razor to create a pretty line in the dough. Bake in the oven on a rack above the water for 35 minutes. You will know the bread is done when the crust turns golden brown.
Remove from oven and cool on cooling rack. Allow to cool fully before slicing open.
And TA DAH! Bread! All the yum, none of the fuss; so tasty, so fresh, and so much less stress than I though it would be.