There is nothing easier to bake on the weekend than bread. It only takes a few basic ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt, maybe some butter or margarine but you can live without them) and it’s both cathartic and smells really good. You have to be home to do the “work” of the bread at several points throughout the day, but it actually is not that much active work overall. The secret is to make a sponge before you want to make the bread, so combine a cup of water and a cup of flour with a packet of yeast the night before you wish to spring the bread activity into action. (Cover with foil for the fermentation.) In a pinch, 3 hours of fermenting will make for better bread than if you did a “modern” recipe without a fermentation period. In a lull, up to 72 hours will do. But 12 is my normal overnight thing and that is what I did this time. After the sponge has had time to do its thing, you add another packet of yeast and another cup of warm water and as much flour as is required to form a dough. This is admittedly the tricky bit. Only practice allows for a good judgement on when there is enough flour, no measurements can help. I knead mine in my Kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook, and the speed of the mixer is related to the amount of flour needed. It’s easy to add too much flour and to knead too little. A nob (1-2 T) of softened butter added after the dough is in place and kneading will aid in the longevity of the bread, so I typically do add this. (French baguettes ignore this step but they are set up to be purchased daily.) I leave it in a buttered large bowl for a first rising, with no particular judgements about when I’ll call time and go to the next phase. Here is today’s rising dough:
Once it’s about to take over the kitchen, I form it into loaves or rolls or whatever and leave it to raise again. During the entire rising process I tend to have the oven on even though I am not baking yet–the local warmth increase in the kitchen is significant in the winter months (it was 66 F in my living room this morning but 75 F in my kitchen with the oven on 200 C, as per my trusty probe thermometer). Eventually I toss the loaves or rolls or whatever into the oven and take them out when golden brown.
The image shows two loaves, one made with an American loaf pan (imported) and one with a British version. In both cases, I use an ingenious parchment paper wrapper (like a muffin cup) purchased here: it fits the Brit loaf pan perfectly and the American loaf pan imperfectly but is the single greatest innovation in bread making that I have seen in the last few years. The final results are here:
Taller but squatter British loaf on the left. And I don’t care. I have no interest in the loaf geometry, just in the quality of the bread and it is excellent. With a little bit of time, home-made bread is easy to do and easy to optimize. And it provides me the ideal displacement activity when I really don’t want to be working all weekend yet again.