One of the things that people really enjoy, and which can significantly improve any survival situation, is fresh baked bread. Bread has been part of our cultural menu for thousands of years: remember the story of Exodus, when the Israelites had to flee before their bread had time to rise. This gave us the traditional Passover Bread of Affliction, or matzo.
At heart, bread is simply flour, sugar, salt, water, yeast, and time in the right proportions. Flour, sugar, and salt can all be stored for a good length of time, and potable water should be a priority anyway.
That leaves yeast. A jar of yeast kept in a cool dark place can last, without losing its leavening power, at least six months to possibly a year; I keep my jars of yeast in the freezer to help extend this duration. Packets of yeast, each of which contains ¼ ounce of yeast or two teaspoons, can last at least twice as long in proper storage.
Various other ingredients can be added to basic bread as long as the balance of ingredients is maintained. It’s often said that cooking is art and baking is science, and when modifying recipes, this is very true. One of the most important balances is the wet to dry ratio: too much liquid and the dough is a sticky mess, too little and it won’t hold together. I generally add slightly less liquid than the recipe calls for, mix the dough, then add an additional teaspoon of liquid at a time until the dough reaches the right consistency. The time of year, local humidity, and moisture content of the dry ingredients can all affect the amount of liquid need for proper consistency.
Consider this recipe for potato rolls. Other than one part which triggers my OCD, this is a relatively simple recipe that produces light, tasty potato rolls. You can modify the count by dividing the dough into fewer pieces to make bannocks or hamburger buns. Keep in mind that doing that will most likely slightly increase baking time.
1 cup lukewarm potato water
1 large egg
2 teaspoons instant yeast
3 to 3 1/4 cups all-purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, very soft
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
Looking at the ingredient list, you will see some additional items. These all have a purpose.
Potato water is water in which potatoes have been boiled. Lacking that, use a scant cup of water plus ¼ cup dried potato flakes. While the potato starch does add flavor and color, the primary purpose is to enable the dough to hold more water. This helps increase the moisture content of baked goods. Potato flour, when combined with wheat flour, tends to make yeast dough smoother and easier to shape and handle.
Eggs make yeast breads finer and richer. They add color, volume, and also help bind the ingredients together.
Butter, when added in small quantities, results in a greater rise volume, a crisper crust, and a longer shelf life.
Dry Milk, which consists of milk solids, improves the richness and texture of bread. It can also make for a softer crust that browns more quickly. Milk, like butter or oil, can also improve the keeping quality of bread.
Now on to the step by step. This can be done by hand in a large bowl or in a stand mixer; I prefer to use my old reliable KitchenAid Epicurean mixer with a SpiralDough Hook.
Mix together the dry ingredients, stirring everything together as best you can.
Mix together the yeast, egg and potato water. Allow to proof. Proofing means "Giving the yeast time to start working". Adding a pinch of sugar can help with this.
Add the soft butter and mix and knead everything together until you've made a smooth dough. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, it should take 5 to 7 minutes at second speed, and the dough should barely clean the sides of the bowl, perhaps sticking a bit at the bottom.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise, at room temperature, until it's nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Rising may take longer, give it enough time to become quite puffy.
Rising temperature can significantly affect rising time. Yeast operates slower at lower temperatures. In fact, some recipes call for rising overnight in the refrigerator.
While the dough is rising, lightly grease a 9" x 13" pan. I generally use canola spray oil. For certain recipes, I may also use butter or olive oil.
Gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly greased work surface. Divide it into 16 pieces. Deflate means "To press out the excess gas produced by the yeast", not to be confused with kneading.
Once it’s flattened, shape into a rough rectangle and use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, to divide the dough. For the work surface, I prefer to sprinkle a small amount of flour.
Shape each piece into a rough ball by pulling the dough into a very small knot at the bottom, then rolling it under the palm of your hand into a smooth ball.
Place rolls in the 9" x 13" pan, spacing them evenly; don't worry if they touch one another.
Here’s the OCD trigger. We have 16 rolls to put in a 9x16 pan. Three rows of five rolls each is fifteen. Where does the extra go? Wherever it fits. Twitch, twitch.
Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow the rolls to rise till they're very puffy, and have reached out and touched one another. This takes about 1 hour. While the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Bake the rolls until they're a deep golden brown on top, and lighter on the sides. This should take 20 to 25 minutes.
It’s very important in baking to have an oven that reliably and accurately keeps temperature. An oven thermometer can help with establishing this. Time will also vary based on oven type and size; if you’re new to baking, start with the shorter time and check the results.
Remove the rolls from the oven, and after 2 or 3 minutes, carefully transfer them to a rack. They'll be hot and delicate, so be careful.
I have a shelf full of cookbooks, many of them specifically for baking. Some of my favorites are Secrets of a Jewish Baker, which was a gift from my late mother; the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook, which my wife and I picked up on a trip to the King Arthur factory and store; the ultimate classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking; and finally, a book I picked up when doing WWII reenactments: a 1942 copy of TM-10-410, The Army Baker.
There’s an almost infinite variety when baking, so there should be something for everyone. Don’t be afraid to experiment; just take your time and read the recipe all the way through before starting.
Happy baking, and bon appetit!
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