Of all articles of food, bread is perhaps the one about which most has been written, most instruction given, and most failures made. Yet what adds more to the elegance of a table than exquisite bread or breads, and unless- you live in a large city and depend on the baker- what so rare? A lady who is very proud of her table, and justly so, said to me quite lately, “I cannot understand how it is we never have really fine home-made bread. I have tried many recipes, following them closely, and I can’t achieve anything but a common place loaf with a thick hard crust; and as for rolls, they are my despair. I have wasted eggs, butter and patience so often that I have determined to give them up, but a fine loaf I will try for.”
“And when you achieve the fine loaf, you may revel in home-made rolls”, I answered.
And so, I advise every one first to make perfect bread, light, white, crisp and thin crusted, than rarest thing in home-made bread.
I have read over many recipes for bread, and I am convinced that when the time allowed for rising is specified, it is invariably too short. One standard book directs you to leave your sponge two hours and the bread when made up –a quarter of an hour- This recipe strictly followed must result in heavy, tough bread. As bread is so important, and so many fail, I will give you my own method from beginning to end; not that there are not numberless good recipes, but simply because they frequently need adapting to circumstances, and altering a recipe is one of the things a tyro fears to do.
I make a sponge over night, using a dried- yeast -cake soaked in a pint of warm water, to which I add a spoonful of salt, and, if the weather is warm, as much soda as will lie on a dime; make this into a stiff batter with flour-it may take a quart or less, flour varies so much, to give a rule is impossible; but if, after standing, the sponge has a watery appearance, make it thicker by sprinkling in more flour, beat hard a few minutes, and cover with a cloth- in winter keep a piece of thick flannel for the purpose, as a chill is fatal for your sponge- and set in a warm place free from draughts.
The next morning, when the sponge is quite light- that is to say, at least twice the bulk it was, and like a honey comb — take two quarts of flour, more or less, as you require, but I recommend at first a small baking, and this will make three small loaves; in winter, flour should be dried and warmed; put it in your mixing bowl, and turn the sponge into a hole in the center. Have ready some water, rather more than warm, but not hot. Add it gradually, stirring your flour into the sponge at the same time. The great fault in making bread is getting the dough too stiff; it should be as soft as possible, without being at all sticky or wet. Now, knead it with both hands from all sides into the center; keep this motion, occasionally dipping your hands into the flour unless the paste sticks very much; if you have the right consistency it will be a smooth mass, very soft to the touch, yet not sticky, but this may not be attained at a first mixing without adding flour by degrees. When you have kneaded the dough until it leaves the bowl all round, set it in warm place to rise. When it is well risen, feels very soft and warm to the touch, and its twice its bulk, knead it once more thoroughly, then put it in tins either floured, and the flour not adhering shaken out, or buttered , putting in each piece of dough half size you intend your loaf to be. Now everything depends on your oven. Many people bake their bread slowly, leaving it in the oven a long time, and this causes a thick, hard crust. When baked in the modern iron oven, quick baking is necessary. Let the oven be quite hot, then put a little ball of paste in, and if it browns palely in seven to ten minutes it is about right; if it burns it is too hot, open the dumper ten minutes. Your bread, after it is in the tins, will rise much more quickly than the first time. Let it get light, but not too light-twice its bulk is a good rule; but if it is light before your oven is ready, and thus in danger of getting too porous, work it down with your hand, it will not harm it, although it is better so to manage that the oven waits for the bread for the oven. A small loaf-and by all means make them small until you have gained experience-will not take more than three quarters of an hour to bake; when a nice yellow brown, take it out, turn it out of the tin into a cloth, and top the bottom; if it is crisp and smells cooked, the loaf is done. Once the bottom is brown it need remain no longer. Should that, however, from fault of your oven, be not brown, but soft and white, you must put it back in the oven, the bottom upwards. An oven that does not bake at the bottom will be likely to spoil your bread. It is sometimes causes by a careless servant leaving a collection of ashes underneath it; satisfy yourself that all the flues are perfectly clean and clear before beginning to bake, and if it still refuses to do its duty, change it, for you will have nothing but loss and vexation of spirit while you have it in use.
I think you will find this bread white, evenly porous (not with small holes in one part and caverns in another; if it is so you have made your dough too stiff, and if is not sufficiently kneaded), and with a thin, crisp crust. Bread will surely fail to rise at all if you have scalded the yeast; the water must never be too hot.
In making bread with compressed yeast proceed in exactly the same way, excepting that the sponge will not need to be set over night, unless you want to bake very early. If you have once produced bread to your satisfaction you will find no difficulty in making rolls. Proceed as follows: Take a piece of the dough from your baking after it has risen once. To a piece as large as man’s fist, take a large tablespoonful of butter and a little powder sugar; work them into the dough, put it in a bowl, cover it, set it in a warm place to rise-the shelf behind the stove is best; if you make this at the same time as your bread, you will find it takes longer to rise; the butter causes that difference; when very light, much lighter than your bread should be, take your hand and push it down till it is not larger than when you put it in the bowl; let it rise again, and again push it down, but not so thoroughly; do this once or twice more, and you have the secret of light rolls. You will find them rise very quickly, after once or twice pushing down. When they have risen the third or fourth time, take a little butter on your hands, and break off small pieces about the size of a walnut and roll them round. Either put them on a tin close together, to be broken apart, or an inch or two from each other, in which case work in a little more flour, and cut a cleft on the top, and once more set to rise; half an hour will be long enough generally, but in this case you must judge yourself, they sometimes take an hour; if they look swelled very much and smooth they will be ready. Have a nice hot oven, and bake for twelve to fifteen minutes.
Add a little more sugar to your dough and an egg, go through the same process, brush them over with sugar dissolved in milk, and you will have delicious rusks.
The above is my own method of making rolls, and the simplest I know of; but there are numberless of other recipes given in cookery books which would be just as good if the exact directions for letting them rise were given. As a test-and every experiment you try will be so much gained in your experience-follow the recipe given for rolls in any good cookery book, take part of the dough and let it rise as there directed and bake, set the other part to rise as I directed and notice the difference.