Pandemic Bread-Making for the Non-Baker

This bread was NOT baked by me!

There were so many different ways I could have titled this post. It started out in drafts as When Pandemic Baking Goes Very Wrong, and I still like that title but I wanted something to more closely reflect what this post is about. The truth is I’m a terrible cook and a fair-to-middling baker when I put my mind to it. The problem is I allow myself to get easily distracted, and the next thing I know, the smoke detector is going off, the food is ruined, and I am very, very frustrated about it. For baking to be done correctly, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing–or at the very least, set timers if you’re likely to wander off  to draft the next scene in your WIP.

My cooking skills are rudimentary at best. There are a few things I do well, and a few I can manage if I pay close attention to the recipe. Everything else is hit or miss without the aid of specialized machines, such as Instant Pots or bread machines, and the learning curve on them is usually steep with me. I’ve often said my life would be easier if Purina made People Chow and I could just pour myself a bowl when I was hungry.

But I love bread, and I’d been toying with making my own bread long before the pandemic hit and I began stress-eating my weight in carbs every day. A part of me is concerned about the health consequences of doing this, but the rest of me is savage about doing WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STAY ALIVE RIGHT NOW SO SHUT THE HELL UP THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Um, where was I? Oh, right. Making bread.

Now I know that I do better when I restrict gluten in my life, so what the heck am I doing taking about and baking bread right now? Well, I suspect it’s a bit like Lucy Lawless’s character in My Life is Murder. Alexa Crowe’s husband has died, she’s in mourning, struggling with insomnia, and coping by baking bread, pretending she hasn’t been adopted by a stray cat, and consulting with her former colleagues at the police department on challenging cases. Ironically, Lucy Lawless herself is either gluten sensitive or highly allergic–she described bread as being “death to me.” But watching Alexa make bread week after week inspired me to finally replace my bread machine after years without one: choosing one with a gluten-free option should I get inspired to make my own GF bread.

Mind you, I didn’t go crazy and buy a $1500 dollar German machine like Alexa did so she could make all those fancy artisan breads she sells to the local restaurant. No, I read some reviews on Amazon, looked for one that had a GF option in my budget, saved up and treated myself to one.

The machine got used maybe once or twice before the end of the year. Then 2020 came, and by early February, it was clear to me we were in for a serious pandemic. I began buying extras of the things I used most with my regular shopping–and one of the things I stocked up on was bread flour and yeast. I know, both hard to come by now. But my understanding is the King Arthur Flour website is still shipping bread flour and possibly yeast as well. AND they make GF flours too! But for the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about regular bread.

The recipe I like best for your basic white bread made in bread machine comes from a website called Julia’s Kitchen. I found recipes that called for butter instead of oil tended not to mix as well, and Julia’s recipe in particular seemed to have that crusty surface and fluffy interior that I like so much. The website says the recipe was adapted from one included with the Williams-Sonoma bread machine booklet. You can check out the link for the recipe, but I’m including it here as well with my own adaptation. It’s pretty simple:

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups white bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
Instructions:
Julia recommends sifting or aerating the flour with with a whisk, then spooning the needed amount into a measuring cup. Using the cup to dip into your flour and scoop some out will result in measuring out too much flour because it’s somewhat packed down, and you might end up with dry bread.
 
My bread machine has different settings for crust darkness and size of loaf. I found the medium crust setting and the 1.5 pound loaf worked best with this recipe.
  1. Add water and oil into the bread pan. Add salt, sugar. Add flour.

  2. Make a small indentation on top of flour and make sure it does not reach wet ingredients. Add the yeast to the indentation.

  3. Keep yeast away from the salt. I find if the salt and sugar are added to the liquid ingredients and the flour poured in on top of this, keeping the yeast and the salt separate isn’t an issue.

    My secret ingredient at this point is I add mash up half of an over-ripe banana and drop it in on top of the flour. This extra touch results in a deliciously moist loaf of bread and the amount of banana is so little that it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread. So don’t throw out those old bananas if you’re about to make some bread! And if your machine has an “add fruit setting” ignore it for this step. Drape the banana in on top of the flour around the pile of yeast and press “START.” You’re good to go!

Want to make this recipe but a wheat bread instead? Replace 1/4 cup of bread flour with whole wheat flour and you’re good to go.

I DID make this loaf of bread. Not bad, eh?

So I seem set, right? I have bread flour. I have sugar, salt, and oil. I have yeast. I have a bread machine. But I can see a time in the not too distant future where I might not be able to get yeast, so I wanted to look at some other alternatives, including making bread without a machine.

The first problem was what to do if I didn’t have yeast? Well, author J. G. MacLeod shared this no-yeast recipe for dinner rolls with me on Twitter:

See that listing of “baking powder” there? If you’re like me, you have an ancient can of that sitting on your shelf that you haven’t used in a thousand years. Fortunately, I bought some recently, so I didn’t have to worry about poisoning my family. Also, apparently, you can make substitutes for it if you have baking soda and cream of tartar–which I do because of a sour cream cookie recipe I always want to make at Christmas and almost never do. Anyway, delving into the differences between baking soda and baking powder brought me to Irish Soda bread, which doesn’t require yeast, but DOES require buttermilk. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to attempt this. I’m not planning to go to the store for several weeks. The funny thing is I came very close to buying buttermilk on my last shopping run but decided against it as I could only think of one thing that might use it: my grandmother’s fried cornbread recipe. I should have gone with my instincts. The soda bread recipe I intend to try is from the AllRecipes website called Amazingly Easy Irish Soda Bread. You can see why that title appealed to me, right? This calls for baking soda AND baking powder. Why, I have no idea. But I’ll report back once I try it.

But this got me thinking about bread starter and how I could get yeast-risen bread without yeast. I ran across a viral thread on Twitter posted by @shoelaces3, a yeast biologist on how to make starter without yeast.

I’ll summarize here: there’s yeast all around us. So it’s possible to create starter from dried fruit, all-purpose flour, and warm water. But go to the thread here for the deets. I was VERY excited when I came across this thread. I had some dried cranberries I thought would fit the bill, and I made my mixture. I didn’t have a scale to weigh the flour (and two tablespoons of water is 60 ml, not 40) but I approximated according to the directions and set my jar up in a warm place. I definitely got bubbles after 12 hours but never really saw the flour paste “loosen up” so I could repeat the process. After 48 hours, I couldn’t tell if the pinkish tinge to the concoction was due to the cranberries or the fact I was growing penicillin without a license. I chucked that batch and decided I would try again. I might steal one of my husband’s bottles of ale to see if that will make a better starter than the cranberries. I want to give this a serious attempt in case yeast becomes impossible to find.

Notice how the dogs are in focus but the starter is not. I have my priorities straight!

I mentioned this process to a friend of mine who is a former baker, and she said that most bakeries have yeast floating in the air from making so much bread, and that it practically self-generates in those conditions.

But that brought me around to an old sourdough starter recipe I’d used many years ago. It calls for using yeast in the initial batch, and then you keep it going by feeding it every 3-5 days. I’d done that before. I could try it again, right?

I dug through my old ‘recipe” file. It’s literally a manila folder where over the years I’ve tucked slips of paper with favorite recipes scribbled on them. Yeah, not much of a cook.  Not much of an organizer, either. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to have my bread recipes in one easy-to-find location. Or I could, you know, organize my files. But not today.

Right, so I dug out my old bread starter recipe. Back when I was making bread by hand, this was my go-to recipe. Fair warning: in the final form it makes 3 loaves. I’m as hopeless with math as I am with cooking but I’m looking to cut this recipe by a third unless I plan on giving bread away. I’d freeze it, only my freezer is so full right now, I have to duct tape it shut.

This recipe came from the local newspaper many, many years ago.

Sourdough Starter and Bread:

Starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast (I have no idea how much this holds: I’m guessing between 1.5 and 2 tsp)

I tablespoon sugar

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons instant potatoes

Instant potatoes? Yes, you read that right. But chances are you don’t have any at the house so save that for your next grocery run.

Combine flour, yeast, and sugar in a non-metal bowl. Mix the potato flakes and warm water, and add to the flour combo. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let stand in a warm place for 48 hours.

Remove one cup and store in the fridge. Discard remainder (or share with a friend)

Keep refrigerated and covered with foil 3-5 days. To feed starter in 3-5 days, combine 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons instant potato flakes and one cup of warm water. Mix well and add to starter. Let stand in warm place 8-12 hours. This will only bubble, not rise.

Remove one cup starter to use in making bread; return rest to fridge. If not making bread, remove one cup and discard it. Store starter in fridge in a quart jar with holes punched in the lid. Feed every 3-5 days.

Bread:

1 cup starter

1/2 cup corn oil

1.5 cups warm water

6 cups bread flour

1/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl. Place dough in separate greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover with foil and let stand overnight. Do not refrigerate. Next morning, punch down and knead lightly. Divide into 3 parts. Knead lightly on floured board and place into three greased loaf pans. Brush tops with oil and let rise 4-5 hours. Using foil, make a tent over the pans and leave room for the dough to rise.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Remove from pan and brush with melted butter. Cool on wire rack.

I do like this bread very much, but it’s time consuming and sort of implies that you’re home to do all this feeding, kneading, proving, and baking, right? Well, perhaps if you’re on a stay-at-home order, you can give this a try. Otherwise, you’ll have to time it so your feeding and baking coincide with time off work.

When I attempted to make this starter recently, the first 48 hours went like gangbusters! Lovely bubbles, perfect reaction. But when I fed the starter 5 days later, nothing happened. Nada. Zip. Nary a bubble. I suspect two things went wrong. The first is that we had a cold snap, and I don’t tend to run the heat very high. Most likely the starter never got warm enough during feeding. The other thing that probably didn’t help was I tried to cut the recipe from the get-go, using a third of the ingredients to make the starter in the first place. I’m guessing I didn’t get the proportions right, so I ended up tossing it out and starting again. I hated the thought of wasting 2 tsp of yeast (the equivalent of one loaf of bread in my bread machine) but I very much want my own starter, so there you are.

While I was pawing through my recipes, I came across a handwritten note from Mrs. Crouch, my childhood babysitter. I’d asked for her honey wheat bread recipe many moons ago because I thought it was the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE and she wrote it out for me. Seeing that spidery handwriting took me back to the child I was, sitting in her kitchen, closing my eyes as I inhaled the scent of baking bread in the oven. I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Crouch in decades, but there she was again, a tiny bird-boned woman with a mass of snow-white hair who lived in what seemed like a fairy tale cottage with a massive oil stove that heated the kitchen like a furnace. I suppose in retrospect, she was a widow in tight circumstances, living in her old house in the middle of nowhere, keeping children for their busy mothers. But I loved going to her house.

I loved her bread too. So I’m sharing her recipe with you. I suspect her special ingredient was a magic known only to her, but I hope you find it.

Honey Wheat Bread Recipe:

4 cups whole wheat  flour

3 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup non-fat dry milk

1/4 cup wheat germ

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages of active dry yeast

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of milk

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Sift flour. Mix all dry ingredients. Stir together water, milk, honey, and oil. Heat over low heat (130 degrees). Dissolve yeast in a little warm water and gradually add to warm milk mixture to yeast mix plus dry ingredients. Stir in enough flour mixture to make a soft dough, keeping 1/2 cup in reserve to spread on a pastry cloth. Knead until smooth and elastic, at least 8-10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size (1 to 1.5 hours). Punch down and make into loaves. Place on baking sheet or in loaf pans and cover. Let rise again until double in size (about 1 hour). Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

This recipe seemed so complicated, so time-consuming to me as a young woman asking for the recipe from a cherished caretaker, that I’ve never actually made it. Maybe I was afraid it would disappoint. More likely, it was because I never had the time.

So it occurs to me as I’ve spent hours writing this post–what are we looking for, we bakers of pandemic bread? I think the answer lies in my memory of sitting in Mrs. Crouch’s kitchen on a snowy day, happily anticipating brushing hot-out-of-the oven bread with butter and taking that first heavenly bite. We want the comfort that the scent of baking bread brings us. We want to be that small child again, in a world where the grown-ups took care of things and we didn’t have to worry. For many of us, food is love and there’s something about homemade bread that is both fundamental and special too, making it the quintessential expression of love.

I think the bread baking and the mask making and the garden planting are all practical steps we are taking to manage our anxiety about an uncertain future. I suspect for many, it’s easier to throw ourselves into something we might never have done before, tasks that require our full attention and take time to complete than it is to do the familiar, especially if we’re on lockdown with too much time for worry to make noise in our heads. Or maybe it fulfills some primal need to put away food for anticipated famine. Make hay while the sun if still shining because there are dark storm clouds rolling in. I don’t know. 

All I know is I’m baking a lot of bread right now. Me and Alexa Crowe. And I’m going to make that honey wheat bread at least ONE time in my life. You can count on it.