I had a girlfriend back in high school who was way into Bread. She ditched me for someone who could really, really pretend that they loved the group's music. Smart girl.
But that is not what this is about.
One of the constants of my early life was Grandma Helen baking bread. I think she baked bread every other day for most of her life. It was a constant and I took (as you do) the fruits of her labor for granted. When she passed a couple of decades (!) ago fresh baked bread was no longer a constant. While I missed it I didn't obsess about it. Things come and go, things change. It's a feature of life.
I did finally decide to see if I could figure out how to bake bread. It had always looked like both a lot of work and a lot of magic, and I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I messed around with different basic recipes, and while I always got a baked wheat flour product, it wasn't always bread. And it was never the bread of my memory.
At some point I dug into a shoe box filled with Grandma's recipes. I didn't have much hope that her bread recipe would be there, because she'd often remarked that she didn't have or need a recipe to make bread. Surprisingly though, I found a yellowing slip of paper which appeared to be a recipe (of sorts) for bread. It was really just a list of ingredients and some cryptic words that might be interpreted as instructions.
The ingredients seemed right. "3C water, 2env yeast, 1/4C sugar, 2tsp salt, 3T butter, 9C flour." The instructions were sparse. "Mix water yeast sugar, set aside. Whisk flour/salt in bowl. Add butter. Add liquid. Mix, turn out -- knead. Rise 3x, last in pans. Bake 350 45 min."
I did some reading up on bread baking technique and was able to get a sense of how the sparse instructions might have represented what Grandma actually did. Shockingly, it worked! The bread I baked was pretty much a dead ringer for the bread Grandma baked. It wasn't exactly the same, because it wasn't Grandma baking it. But it was close enough. Same smell, same flavor, same texture. I use a microwave to melt the butter and I don't think Grandma ever did. I also let the stand mixer do the kneading, and Grandma always used the Armstrong method. I can do it that way, and I have done it that way, but all in all I prefer the mixer.
For those who'd like to play along at home...
3C (680g) lukewarm water (circa 110 deg. F)
¼ C (60g) sugar
2 envelopes dry active yeast (4 ½ t or 18g)
3T melted butter
1 ½ t (16g) salt
9C bread flour, 2.75 lbs or 44 oz or 1250g)
Weigh water, yeast and sugar and mix in bowl, set aside until yeast begins to foam on surface. Melt butter in microwave. Weigh flour in mixer bowl, add salt. Add melted butter, then water/yeast/sugar mix. Mix/knead with dough hook for 10 minutes. Raise in oiled, covered bowl for 30 minutes in warm dark place. When doubled punch down and raise again until doubled, 20-30 minutes. Punch down and divide into thirds with scale. Form into loaves and place in oiled loaf pans. Cover and let rise 20-30 minutes.
Bake at 350 F for 45-50 minutes, until well browned and done. Turn out on cooling rack and brush tops with melted butter (optional). Let cool completely before slicing.
All in all, and interesting experiment. These days I bake bread every week, and only seldom do I buy "store bought." I can't say why I do this. It's a combination of things, really, but at the end of the day I enjoy baking bread and I enjoy consuming the product. Reason enough I suppose.