Sunday, December 4, 2011

Homemade whole wheat bread: nirvana for the soul

Ever since I started cooking seriously around 3/4 years ago, I was told that if I can make bread at home in my LG microwave-convection oven, I would be considered as a good cook. The people who told me this included a few of my 'know-it-all' friends (who by the way cannot boil an egg, even with instructions), a semi serious individual who specialises in French cooking and a few sundry souls.

I read Mark Bittman's no knead whole wheat bread and wondered if I could manage to ever make that crusty, porous bread that they say can be made if you have magic in your soul or a french baker's daughter for a wife! Bread making has intimidated me. I would look at recipies and curse every one of them that demanded me to have patience for a couple of hours.

I had attempted bread a few times at home, it never ever worked. Each time I was left with a leaden mass of dough that could be outsourced to rioters world over to throw at the establishment.

This time was different.

The ingredients:

Whole wheat flour : 1 - 1/2 standard measure cups ( use any atta, I used Ashirwad ) plus 1/4th cup for dusting
Yeast : 1 tablespoon
Salt: 1/2 teaspoon or to taste
Sugar: 1 teaspoon
Dry herb mix : 4 tablespoon ( I used a mix of Oregano, rosemary, pinch of thyme, chilli flakes, dry coriander leaves, dry garlic flakes)
Olive oil : as required ( I used about 1/4 the standard measure cup / use virgin and not pomace)
Water: 1 standard measure cup / as required ( half room temperature and half lukewarm)
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with a smidgen of milk
Sesame seeds: 1 teaspoon - or as per need
You will need a large flat bottomed vessel for the dough, a moist clean kitchen towel and a brush. Also a oiled cake tin or a bread tin.

Time required, including baking time: approximately 90 mins

Preparing the yeast: This is where it seems people make a mistake. Take a cup of luke warm water (water thats hots will kill the yeast, and water thats tepid will not allow those organisms to bubble, so lukewarm it should be. Test it by pouring a bit in the back of your hand, if it burns, its hot, it, ideally should be comfortable warm). Now dissolve half the sugar in this lukewarm water and then add the yeast into this mix. Cover with a lid and let it rest. The yeast will form a pasty mix, give it a stir after 2-3 minutes and then leave it alone for 10 mins)

Prepare the dough: mix the salt, remaining sugar and the herb mix throughly. In ten minutes your yeast mix would have started to form a nice bubble layer or a forthy layer on the top surface. Add this to the dough and get to work with your hands. Gather the flour and keep kneading, there is no speacial way to do this, when the dough starts to come together, add water in little spashes, keep kneading till it becomes a sticky mix. If it is too watery, please use the spare flour to give it some dryness. At this stage you will have sticky dough on your fingers, do not try to remove them or wash your hands. Now add olive oil and start to use the fleshly part of your palm to push the dough and stretch it from one end to the other while in the vessel itself. The oil will incorporate into the dough and the stretching will ensure that the gluten breaks down and gives the dough the elasticity (ok, I read this up). Use up all the oil, it helps. You will notice that the dough that stuck to your fingers now have vanished into the dough. Turn the cup that contained the olive oil onto the cake / bread tin and use it to oil the bottom of the tin well and then sprinkle flour on the bottom.

Knead the dough to a nice round ball and leave it to reast for 45 mins while covered by the moist towel (moist is not wet!). The yeast will get to work and will make the dough double in size in 45 minutes. Use the time to play with your kids, they will love you for it or your dog. Or just read the newspaper, dont go peeking at the dough every five minutes, the yeast will not work faster because you are in a hurry. After 45 minutes, take a good look. The dough will look like a bloated ball. Gather all your hatred for whovere deserves and punch the dough to release the air inside. Now quickly knead it once again for about 5 minutes and let it rest again for 15 minutes.

Preheat the over to 200 degrees cel. Pop the dough in the cake tin / bread tin and brush the top with the egg wash. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top and use a sharp knife to cut shashes into the top of the bread dough. Put it in the preheated over and bake it for 20/25 minutes. The bread will puff up and the egg wash will turn golden brown. At the end of the 20 minutes / 25 minutes you can test the bread, it will give out a hollow sound if you knock it with a spoon. Now let it cool on the kitchen top while you prepare the tomato salsa or the roasted almond basil pesto that would go with it.

Your kitchen and if you like in a Mumbai flat, the entire flat will have the fragrance of heaven. When the bread at room temperature cut it with a serrated knife or just tear it into chunks and eat it. No bread ever made will taste the same after this.

My bread was eaten within 10 minutes of serving by four people - 3 adults and one 5 1/5 year old. This little girl asked me in all seriousness, can we start a bakery at home?

I am not sure if it was the best bread that money could buy, I have not eaten enough good quality bread to know. The closest it came to in flavour was the bread that we sometimes buy from Nature's Basket and a couple of times from the BBC at Juhu Marriot. In terms of achievement, for me it was a glory moment, I could bake a decent bread, at home, using home ingredients. I had the dry herbs because I have been buying them for my Saturday / Sunday cooking, but you can experiment with fresh herbs like finely chopped onions and coriander, you can also try using a bit of garam masala to give it that Indian flavour. You can use butter or cooking oil instead of olive oil. When you add fresh herbs, please reduce the quantity of water used.

Hope you are proud of your bread when you take it out of the oven. You will feel liberated and will have attained that Buddha inside you!

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