recipes

Baking Bread

In my class about food and religion, we read an excerpt from Robert Farrar Capon’s “The Supper of the Lamb.” In it, he gives a recipe for making Cuban bread from scratch. My professor said if we made the bread, brought one of the two loafs into class, and wrote one page about it, we would get extra credit. I’ve always thought it would be fun to make bread, so I decided to try it.

I never claim to be a food expert because I know I am no where near qualified, and making this bread reassured that. I had no idea what I was  doing, and was intimidated by the concept of making bread from scratch, so I relied heavily on the help of the Internet.The recipe called for:

  • 4 tablespoons yeast
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 6 cups flour (approximately)

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My professor said that in the instructions, Capon is speaking of fresh yeast so using one package of yeast would suffice. The instructions called for me to dissolve the yeast, sugar, and salt in a coffee cup with some of the water. Because my professor said water that’s too warm (over 135 degrees Fahrenheit) will kill the yeast, I kept my water on the colder side of lukewarm. I immediately I thought I messed up because while dissolving the yeast, sugar, and salt in the mug, I assumed I added too much water and that I didn’t make it warm enough. The yeast was taking forever to dissolve but with some patience and vigorous stirring, it eventually did.

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(side note: “Moin Moin is a German greeting for “Good morning.”)

I then was instructed to put the rest of the water in a large bowl and beat in enough of the flour to form a a batter. I wasn’t thinking and used a whisk instead of a wooden spoon, so at first it didn’t mix well. Then, you are supposed to add the contents of the coffee cup to the mix and keep adding flour until a manageable dough is formed. I presumed “manageable dough” meant until it no longer stuck to everything, so I based it off that. Although the recipe called for around six cups of flour, I hardly used four so I was a bit worried. After I put the dough onto a board to knead it, I added more flour so it wouldn’t stick and ended up using around five cups.

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When you knead dough, you form it into a ball, push away from you using the heel of your hand, and then continue to fold it together and knead it. I didn’t know how to tell when it was finished, so I went to the Internet for advice. It said kneading should take about 10 minutes and the dough will become tacky, smooth, and springy once it’s finished. I kneaded for what seemed like ages, but with some good music playing in the background it became pretty fun.With each kneading motion, my kitchen table creaked under the pressure, and I was happy it didn’t give out on me. Once mine seemed to fit the criteria (and I had my hands, my clothes, my phone and laptop, the kitchen floor, and the table covered in flour), I assumed it was finished.

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As instructed, I placed the lump of dough in a butter-greased bowl with a damp clothe on top so it could rise. My kitchen isn’t that toasty so I figured it would take over three hours but it only took around two. The recipe said to let it rise until it had doubled in size, but I wanted to double check on how to tell when it is finished rising. I went to Google again to find the answer and I read that you know it is finished when you can stick two fingers pretty deep into the dough and it doesn’t bounce back. My dough did that and I was amazed I had made it so far.

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I dumped the bowl upside down onto a board so the bread came out. I then cut the lump in half, and formed each half into a circle. As I shaped the two loafs, I kneaded out the gassy-sounding yeast. The recipe said to sprinkle cornmeal on a greased baking sheet, but I don’t have cornmeal so I improvised by sticking tin foil on a baking pan, greasing it with butter, and dusting it with some flour. I was supposed to let the bread sit like that for no more than five minutes and then cut a decent sized cross on the top of each loaf. I completely forgot these two steps, and skipped ahead to placing the bread in the unheated oven, putting a pot of boiling water under it, and then turning the oven on to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. My oven is pretty small and I became worried that the pot of boiling water was sitting too close to the bottom of the tray with the bread, and I ended up being correct. I smelled something funny so I opened the oven, moved the bread rack up a bit – making it slightly too close to the top of the oven for my liking – and the fire alarm went off as a warning. All was well though, so I continued to let the bread bake.

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The instructions said it would take around 45 minutes to bake, but my professor said it would need to bake for at least an hour, so I followed my professor’s directions. I came back to check on it about 10 minutes before it was supposed to be finished, and it was completely done because it was so close to the top of the oven. One of the loafs had a slight burn mark on top and when I touched the tops they felt hard as a rock. I figured it was ruined, but when I cut into it, the inside was perfectly baked despite the crusty exterior.

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I was shocked at my accomplishment – I had actually managed to make bread successfully. My friend and I weren’t sure what exactly made this bread different from other breads. We thought it tasted pretty similar to French bread, and when we Googled it we found Cuban bread is indeed similar to French and Italian bread. We each cut ourselves a slice (or two), added a slice of Brie cheese to it, and smeared some spiced cranberry apple chutney on top. It was absolutely delicious. Brie cheese is easily one of my favorite cheeses because I love the creamy taste and texture. The chutney added a sweet and fruity flavor to it and I couldn’t get enough. As we enjoyed the bread I miraculously didn’t ruin, we discussed how we should begin to make our own bread more often and what recipes we want to try – so maybe there will be more bread recipes to come. When I tried it the next day, the crust wasn’t as crisp and was a much better texture. Even though I doubted my abilities, I am pretty proud of how well the bread turned out, especially since it was my first time ever making bread. I think my housemates would agree that it turned out alright, considering we ate half the loaf in one evening.

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