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posted: 1/13/2010 12:01 AM

Hands-on approach yields the best bread

On Baking

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Editor's note: Annie Overboe is taking some time off. This column originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2001.

"Be there no greater find than a warm loaf of bread and a cool pint of ale."

This phrase rings just as true today as it did when it was first uttered centuries ago.

The distinctive aroma of freshly baked bread creates an irresistible allure, leaving virtually no soul exempt. One whiff and you are hooked.

While working with Dan Leader at Bread Alone in New York, I came to a deeper understanding of the ancient breadmaking art. The secret lies in the touch, specifically the bakers. No other area of baking allows for such an extensive personal contact as does bread dough making. Your fingers touch the batter, your hands knead the dough and your palms shape the loaves.

Many people perceive baking homemade bread to be a time-consuming and difficult process, but nothing can be further from the truth. Breadmaking exists as a unique partnership.

This hardworking partner, yeast, needs only a little warmth, food and something to drink. You'll soon discover the yeast has done most of the work for you.

Your role in the partnership lies in mixing or kneading the dough and developing the strands of gluten that give texture to the bread.

The yeast works magic, and slowly the bread dough rises. In a warm environment, yeast multiplies, giving off carbon dioxide gas that lightens the dough. This is called "proofing," and the yeast requires a little sugar for food and salt to keep growth at a constant rate.

It takes about an hour for the yeast to complete the proofing process and the dough should be almost doubled in size. Then it's off to the oven.

Quick exposure to heat causes the bread to rise faster and the alcohol given off by the yeast in the proofing stage begins to change to a gas. This evaporation process creates that distinctive bread baking aroma.

Today's recipe offers an introduction into the wonderful world of breadmaking. Eggs and butter give the bread a firm, yet soft texture, and the honey acts as the sugar for the yeast and provides a slight background sweet flavor that does not overpower the bread.

The two most important aspects of this recipe are the flours and salt.

Never use cake or pastry flour when making bread dough. Unbleached all-purpose or bread flours are best choices, as they contain high amounts of gluten-producing proteins.

Salt has a love-hate relationship with the yeast: too much salt and the yeast does not multiply and the dough will not rise; not enough salt and the yeast over produces, causing the dough to fall. I strongly recommend using unsalted butter so you can control the amount of salt in the dough.

I love making this bread because it does not require kneading and simply bakes in a round casserole dish.

The finished bread should be a dark golden brown hue and sound hollow when rapped with your knuckles. Reminiscent of ancient bread loaves, the round shape lends itself to serving wedges rather than slices.

So roll up your sleeves and dig in. Homemade bread can be yours tonight.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. To submit a topic to be addressed in this column, write to Baking Secrets, Daily Herald Food section, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006. Or send an e-mail to food@dailyherald.com. Questions will not be responded to personally.

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