Today, I have been contemplating bread. It enters into so many aspects of life. The first bit of solid food a child is given is often that hard crust of bread or 'Zwieback' on which they cut their teeth. The last food you may well stomach in this life might be milktoast. A crust of bread and water feeds the punished and the penitent. Mary Antoinette may well have said, "Let them eat cake.", but it was bread that the French folk truly wanted for their survival. Bread is the most basic of foods, so basic that it enters into our religious lives also as part of the Eucharist. It is part of all cultures in that 'breaking bread' together becomes the ultimate of basic hospitality.
I have tried over the years to make a good loaf of bread. It was a food that I never learned from my mother. She made bread once or twice during the winter, when she made a huge pot of vegetable beef soup. Her loaves came from a ready-made bag mix to which she added water and an egg. I received lessons from a evening program instructor that came to our college dorm during my freshman year. My first attempt was a miserable failure; I still remember the no nonsense critique that the instructor gave me concerning my kneading skills... "Honey, you just didn't love it enough!" Damn, what a succinct way of putting it!
Well, I've kept at it, and I've had my share of leaden loaves and light bits of heaven, crunchy-crusted rounds and hard impenetrable shells. After all the successes and failures, though, there is one loaf that I come back to over and over... a simple round loaf of herb bread. And since this is The Spice Garden, it seems fitting that I share it. I love this bread sliced, toasted, and spread with a sweet butter. I love this bread dipped in a vegetable soup. I also love this bread made into a toasted smoked ham and Fontina cheese sandwich. I love this bread made into croutons for a fondue. I love this bread, period. I'm sure I could tell you other ways to enjoy its green herbiness, but I know you will have ideas of your own.
Choose an afternoon when you have nothing more to do than get your hands sticky with dough and smell the progression from moist dough to warm loaf. I think you will be pleased with your efforts.
1 package yeast
¼ c. warm water
¾ c. milk
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. shortening
3 c. flour
1½ tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. celery seed
2 tsp. dried parsley
flaxseed, sunflower seed, pepitas for working into the dough or coating the crust
Making the Bread:
1. Combine the warm water (around 105 º F) and yeast in a measuring cup and stir to dissolve. Add a pinch of sugar and flour and leave it for ten minutes to proof.
2. In a saucepan, scald the milk and add the sugar, salt, and shortening. When the shortening has melted, remove from heat and cool (you want it just warm, so as not to kill the yeast) to lukewarm.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flour, garlic powder, thyme, celery seed, and parsley.
4. Make a well in the flour mix and add the milk, yeast, and egg (beaten).
5. Stir well to combine and then add more flour to make a smooth dough (you can add up to ½ cup more flour).
6. Turn onto a floured surface and knead for 5-8 minutes. At this point, decide if you want seeds in the dough. If you do, knead them in.
7. When the dough is elastic and smooth, form a ball and place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with a dampened, clean towel and place in a warm place to rise (1½ hours).
8. When dough has doubled, punch it down, let it rest for a few minutes, form it into a round loaf, and place it on a greased cookie sheet.
9. Cover and let it rise for 45 minutes.
10. Pre-heat the oven to 400º F and then bake the bread for 20 minutes.
11. Cover with foil and continue baking for another 15 minutes until bread ‘thumps’ when you rap it.