My mom is a Kneading Queen, Divinity of Dough and Princess of Patisserie. She filled our dinner table and sandwich bags with homemade bread, biscuits and cookies while I was growing up, so of course it seemed normal and mainstream to my narrow experience (versus Matt, who asked me the first time I said I was going to try baking a loaf, "how are you going to make bread without a bread machine?"). Lately she's been on a cake kick, with my red velvet birthday cake and her birthday's coconut cake (that we got to sample) becoming legendary. I was villainzed for weeks after not bringing back enough Tupperware-d slices. After being treated to a breakfast of french toast made from homemade brioche-style bread on our recent visit, I was spellbound- and inspired.
On a side note, my parents have the most impressive lineup of syrups I've ever seen. Regular and sugar-free varieties, samples from artisinal fruit stands in Eastern Washington and Montana (where my favorite flathead cherry comes from), fancy Vermont maple from a farm run by our relatives several times removed... I don't think I'd be able to eat enough pancakes to sample them all.
Anyway. Despite the several hours of driving and such, I was possessed with baking something. French bread sounded great, and there was a recipe for Sriracha-Cheddar bread in The Sriracha Cookbook that I'd been dying to try. And with the revolution in human existence that is the Kitchen Aid Mixer, I could do it all without collapsing from knead-injury.
Not that I am knocking kneading. It can be extremely cathartic, and brings your mind and body together into the evolution of the ingredients and creation of the bread. It makes the act of cooking physical, and therefore more real and present. However, I am a huge arm-wimp. The whole reason I quit ballet after one lesson when I was 8 was because, as I told my mom, "the teacher made us hold our arms up in the air too long." Ugh, yuck. So, unless I feel particularly inspired, I worship my beloved dough hook.
I've been using the same French bread recipe since that day Matt challenged my ability to bake bread without a specially-designed, self-contained contraption. As long as you have viable yeast, it consistently yields plump, toothsome loaves. You have to watch out with your yeast, or else you'll end up wasting hours of rising time and lots of flour to failures. Check the expiration dates, and if you buy yeast in jars versus packets (the most economic option), keep it in the refrigerator after opening. Taking a cue from Petit Provence, I've started to knead in extra flavors during the "jelly roll" phase (where the loaf takes on the look, and one more rise, into a baguette-style bread). For this batch I roasted a head of garlic and sprinkled on some Herbes de Provence. I think this is the most beautiful spice blend in the world, but I never find the chance to use it. It's the kind of thing you use to crust a crown lamb roast, and I've served exactly zero of those. Rolled up and sealed, the extra ingredients disperse and pop up by surprise in slices.
The rising of the bread (three times in this particular recipe) never ceases to amaze me. You have to cover it up, leave it alone, and trust that by the miracle of nature the little ball you whipped into reality will somehow double in size. I always catch myself taking an extra, exalted breath when I lift up the towel, finding that the universe hasn't cheated me. It's all grown up! And the sick joy of destroying it all with a deflating punch? Well, you're already played the God of Creation. Vengeful God is fun, too!
Never get lazy and skip the egg wash. It seems kind of dumb, right? Why would I waste a whole, innocent egg just to brush on a loaf? Won't it get brown in the oven on its own? Yes, but not that golden, otherworldly lacquer that makes any bread so artfully appealing. It's a touch that makes the feast of the eyes complete, which always makes the real eating process exponentially more fantastic.
Cute bread baskets and lovely towels also assist. Add oil and vinegar, savor. Repeat infinitely.
Oh, but I wasn't done! This crazy sriracha cheddar bread was still waiting to be made. Since I've been making paninis so often lately, with my work and school schedule pushing me into the simpler cooking options, I thought this would taste wonderful grilled. It involved whipping up a slightly sweet dough and then rolling it out for ingredients and a jell-rolling, very similar to the French bread technique. The filling was, of course, sriracha sauce and grated cheddar cheese, which looked like homemade pizza. The rolled-up loaf then had an additional 2 hour rising time (after its previous 2 hour rise before the rollout), which meant I got to catch some serious Oscar action. Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada is one of my favorite movies, but I seriously want to smack you the face. Not every person you introduce needs a spazzy arm-wave and shriek. We get it, you're cute. And James Franco? Your apathy is contagious, and not in a good way. Natalie Portman's matchy-match fringe earrings irritated the shit out of me. I guess I need to put The King's Speech in my Netflix queue.
Oh look, the bread's done!
Oh my gosh! It's a loaf! A real, puffy, perfect loaf! Again, I just can't get over how it all actually works. If you follow the steps, perfected over millennia, you get beautiful results. We sliced into the sriracha loaf tonight (as I had this freaky, 24-hour-flu-of-death last night) for our sandwiches, and it was delightfully spicy kept in check by the dough's subtle sugar addition. Toasted in the Griddler, the cheddar cheese started to melt a bit and caramelize a bit. It also had that tender, just-sliced bite you only get from bread that's recently emerged from the oven. It's just like how mom made, but with hot sauce. I made her proud, my husband rave, and my cat intrigued. What else could you want out of a Sunday experiment?