BY VALERIE BELDEN WILDER
Columbia County, New York I Thursday, 24 May 2018
So, this food blogger has a guilty confession.
I’m not very good at making yeast breads. It hasn’t always been that way, though. When I was first married, determined to be a good cook and provident wife, I made bread, and it turned out fine. I didn’t make it on a regular basis, only occasionally, but it always turned out well.
Then, there was this one time. I started a batch of French bread, and it was turning out beautifully. I made enough dough for two loaves, and it rose well. I divided it in half, formed it into two perfectly shaped loaves, proudly dusted my baking sheet with cornmeal, and put the loaves on it, to rise a second time.
They rose again, and looked gorgeous. So enticing, in fact, I took a picture. I remember.
But then, I decided to gild the lily and cut two slashes on the top of each loaf, thinking this would make them look REALLY pretty, really professional.
Into the oven they went. I don’t know why, but they turned out like bricks. French bread bricks. It was so disappointing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I would rather ruin a recipe at the beginning, than at the very end.
When you’re on a tight budget, you worry about all the ingredients wasted. Maybe when you’re wealthy, you think about ingredients wasted, too, I don’t know. All those cups of flour, and precious eggs, butter, and sugar. This makes a failed recipe doubly disappointing.
So, for many years after this, I didn’t make yeast bread from scratch. I turned to Rhodes Rolls frozen dough for help, because it was surefire, and readily available at all grocery stores. Sometimes I made a pan of white rolls, usually for special occasion dinners, like Easter or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, before my folks moved west and we started going up there for Turkey Day.
My husband liked wheat bread, so one time when I was feeling especially flush and fancy, I devised something called Checkerboard Rolls. I bought one package of wheat roll dough and one of white, and I alternated them in my two 8″ x 8″ pans.
I really loved the way they looked when they were done, and I liked doing it this way much better than making one boring pan of white and one boring pan of wheat.
It made me feel creative, and perhaps it helped me to feel less guilty about using frozen dough.
Then, last fall, I decided to try my hand at bread again, right before Thanksgiving. I tried several roll recipes from scratch, and they failed. Miserably. I felt like I was a paperweight maker, and not a baker. Hey, that rhymes, hahaha!
In desperation for “homemade” bread for my Thanksgiving dinner, I spied a box of Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit Mix at Aldi, and I bought it. They turned out to be easy and delicious, and were a real hit with my dinner guests.
After this, I started making baking powder biscuits from scratch, all winter long. They were very cheap to make, really easy, and they ALWAYS turned out. Sometimes I would add Lawry’s Lemon Pepper to the dough, or dust the tops with paprika.
Finally, though, it began to nag at me, this ongoing fear of yeast breads, and I thought about it. I decided I must be killing the yeast by using liquids of an improper temperature, and the test-the-liquid’s-temperature-with-my-finger method would never work for me, and never be attempted again.
I was sick of failing at something which seemed so simple.
I had to tackle the problem. I went to the Chef’s Shop in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Richard, my friend from high school, works, and asked for a good thermometer. Richard, unfortunately, was off that day.
The sales guy showed me one, but I needed a thermometer with even bigger numbers. (I must be getting old. Everything is fuzzy…) And not a digital one, because I hate replacing batteries. I finally bought a thermometer with a dial, the one with the largest numbers I could find.
After my mom passed away last fall, I went through all her cookbooks she had here in New York, and I found a thick magazine devoted to all types of bread. I squirrelled it away on my cookbook shelf, over the sink.
A few days ago, I was leafing through it again, and emboldened by the thermometer (which had been gathering dust in one of my cooking implement drawers), I decided to try my hand at making some soft pretzels. Heaven knows I LOVE those giant soft pretzels, especially when I’m at an airport.
I decided to proof my yeast first, by dumping it into a small bowl with some sugar. Then, with much trepidation, I added some very warm water, and stuck the thermometer into the mixture.
The liquid was just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the yeast mixture started to bubble, which is a very good sign!
My pretzels worked! Thing 2 happily devoured a bunch of them!
So then, I decided I HAD to make a loaf of bread for our neighbor, whose brother died recently. And I wanted to make TWO loaves, so I could have one to keep.
I used two bowls, with ingredients for one loaf in each bowl. For some strange reason, one batch of the dough was a bit rougher than the other one, and rose a bit less. But still, both loaves worked!
What shall I make next? Bring me that bread magazine…