The Kneading Problem

There are those who claim to enjoy bread kneading: dread-locked latter-day hippies getting in touch with the earth, frustrated urban mothers releasing pent-up aggression, or just seemingly normal people who maintain that kneading bread is meditative and relaxing (although I suspect that it is far more relaxing for those who have servants to clean up after them). I do not like kneading bread: kneading makes my counter and hands messy, and there are other things I would rather do with my time, things that are far more effective when it comes to getting in tough with Mother Earth, channeling aggression, or just relaxing. Furthermore, the texture of my non-hand kneaded bread is way better than the texture of the bread I knead by hand. I also cannot get out of my mind the little pieces of dough my grandmother used to give to us to play with (the original Play Doh); after half an hour the color of my dough ball had turned from creamy to gray. And yes, I wash my hands more often now than I did then, but still, the hygienic  consequences of hand kneading do not escape me.

breadbooksThe two bread books of this post feature two different ways for the home baker to avoid hand kneading. Charles van Over, in The Best Bread Ever goes for machine kneading, specifically kneading with the food processor. Nancy Baggett, in Kneadlessly Simple takes the no-knead approach, offering up her version of Jim Lahey’s amazing bread making techniques.

bbeCharles van Over has had a big influence on my bread baking, yet what I retain from his book can be summed up in a few sentences: Put all dry ingredients in the bowl of the food processor, fitted with the steel blade. With the motor running, add the liquid ingredients. Adjust with a little more flour or a little more liquid: the ideal texture is for the dough to be in one lump, but soft enough to smear over the food processor bowl with only a little more liquid. Process for 30 to 45 seconds, then proceed with rising and baking as usual.  I started using the food processor for kneading with the breads from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, wherein most breads are presented with three kneading options: by hand, by mixer, or by food processor. I found the processed bread much more satisfactory than the mixer kneaded bread. Charles van Over suggests that the reason for this may be the short kneading time, which incorporates less air into the dough.

Charles goes into lots of detail in his recipes. For example, he loves to take temperatures, which I refuse to do, and he has recipes for more complicated breads which really do require more steps. He also includes recipes for what to do with your bread, once baked, or what to eat with it. The actual bread recipes in this book are perfectly adequate. I found the breads that I tried too dry, and for all ended up adding more liquid. The biggest problem with the food processor method is that it works best with a monstrously big food processor, which, thanks to my excellent husband, I happen to have. (It was a gift over 30 years ago and is still going strong.) I am not sure that I would be as enthusiastic about food processor kneading if I had to divide the dough and process in two batches, or only make small batches.

bbeverOther than being kneaded in the food processor, the challah (page 130) from  The Best Bread Ever differs from other challah in several ways. Charles gives the bread three rises. I am so used to forming loaves after the first rise that I am not sure I fit in the extra rise when trying this recipe. He uses a small amount of yeast (one teaspoon for one pound of bread); I slightly increased this since this is winter and my house is cold. He also uses very little oil, only two teaspoons. This I like, since I think less oil gives the breadier, chewier texture that I prefer. He only uses a small amount of sweetener (one tablespoon of honey); I did not increase this since I was testing this recipe, not trying to morph it into my standard recipe, but I like a sweeter challah. The cooked challah tasted only okay, but its texture was perfect.

bbewalnutI was afraid the “Walnut Bread” ([age 185) was not going to work, and I had no one to blame but myself. This bread uses a starter; instead of trying to cultivate wild yeasts, I just started my starter with commercial yeast. After nurturing the starter for several days, it was full of life. Thus I decided to use only the starter to leaven my walnut bread, and did not add the additional half teaspoon of yeast listed in the ingredients for this bread. I was also planning to give the bread a slow overnight rise, so did not think that I would need the extra yeast. As it was, my bread hardly rose at all. Envisioning solid bricks emerging from my oven, I started wondering whether to buy challah, make some yeast-heavy challah in the few hours before candle lighting, or just serve the walnut bread bricks. Fortunately, the yeast had been active enough in the loaves to make little air bubbles so that the bread was only slightly heavy. It also had a very nice taste. I will try this bread again some day, but with a tiny bit of extra yeast, probably not the whole half teaspoon.

sdbread“The King of Bread—Peasant Wheat Loaf” does not appear until page 191; one might think that a true king would merit more prominence. This is just a basic sourdough bread with a mix of white and whole wheat flours, with a little bit of rye. I used a starter from Isaac A; although he also started his starter with commercial yeast, I liked it better than mine, and this was some of the best bread that I have made in a long time. [Go to the recipe.]

kneadlessNancy Baggett has been baking and writing about baking for a long time—perhaps too long. In Kneadlessly Simple, her starting point is Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. His basic bread, or at least my adaptation of his bread, consists of 3 cups of flour, ¼ teaspoon of yeast, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1½ cups of flour mixed together thoroughly, then left to rise overnight. After rising, the bread is shaped into a round loaf and left to rise again, wrapped in a floured tea towel. When the bread is ready to bake, preheat the oven with a covered pot in the oven to 500° for at least 30 minutes. Then unwrap the bread, place it in the pot, cover the pot, reduce the temperature slightly and bake until done, maybe 30 minutes. I outline this recipe just to point out how Nancy departs from it. First, she cannot get her mind around the small amount of yeast; most of her recipes call for at least ½ teaspoon of yeast, often more. She can’t seem to forget the old theory that yeast must be fed sugar, an ingredient in many of her recipes. She is certainly no bread purist; in addition to the sugar to feed the yeast, she often adds more sweetener and also fat of some form or another. She is quite pleased to identify certain breads as “pot” breads, baked in a covered pot, but the majority of her breads do not fall into this category. I think of myself as quite superior when I consider how Nancy has strayed from the true bread making path, but then I make one of her breads, and it is so good that I am humbled.

ksimpleIt is de rigueur amongst those who write and publish bread recipes to attribute their challah recipe to someone with as extreme a Yiddish name as possible. Nancy Baggett adheres to these conventions; her challah recipe (page 87) is reportedly the recipe of her friend Cronshi. Now the significant aspect of a challah recipe is not necessarily the ingredient list, rather the technique used, and though the ingredients may well be Cronshi’s ingredients, I am not so sure about the technique. Ingredient-wise, the recipe has very standard proportions of flour, sweetener, eggs, and oil. Technique-wise, Nancy does something very interesting here: the initial overnight long, slow rise is done before the eggs are added. Then the eggs are added, and the bread is braided, rises, and is baked. Although I think that the acid in the bread dough keeps food poisoning from being an issue with eggy doughs undergoing an overnight rise, I am still a little suspicious. Thus I liked this technique. Furthermore, the challah was excellent; this recipe may take over as the house challah on Heatherway. [Go to the recipe.]

oatbreadkneadlesslyNancy bakes her “Easy Oat Bread” (page 39) in loaf pans; I bake mine in covered pots. I also depart from her recipe by using less yeast (¼ teaspoon versus 1 teaspoon), a mixture of white and white whole wheat flour instead of all white flour, and instead of using “flavorless vegetable oil”, I opt for a nut oil with flavor. The resulting bread was tasty and east to cut and eat. Although I prefer a more hard core (and hard crust) bread for sandwiches, this bread was excellent with just butter.

seedbreadxxx“Crunch-Munchy Pumpkin, Sunflower, and Flax Seed Boule” (page 146) was another easy to eat and easy to cut loaf, with honey and oil added along with all the seeds mentioned in the cringe-worthy name of this bread. For some reason, Nancy puts her bread in an oiled pot in which it will be baked for its final rise; I just wrapped my dough rounds in towels, then turned them out into the preheated pots per the Jim Lahey master instructions. I also used less yeast. This was a very satisfactory bread, and all those seeds have got to be healthy.


Sourdough Bread

Adapted from Charles van Over, The Best Bread Ever


1 cup whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
2 cups flour
½ cup rye flour
¼ teaspoon yeast
2½ teaspoons salt
½ cup starter
1¼ cups water

Start making the starter at least five days before you want to bake the bread. Begin by mixing about a cup of flour (any combination of whole wheat, white whole wheat, or white; it’s nice to throw in a little rye) with ¼ teaspoon of yeast and about ¾ cup of water. Cover, leaving room to expand, and let this mixture sit on your counter until it is bubbly and doubled in size. Each day for the next 4 or five days feed the starter by adding flour and water, with about twice as much (by volume) flour as water—say, ½ cup of flour and ¼ cup of water. After a series of about four feedings, the starter is ready to use. Afterwards, keep the starter in the refrigerator, feeding it (with flour and water, twice as much flour as water by volume) at least once a week. Before baking with it, remove the starter from the refrigerator, feed it, and let the starter sit overnight to become active.

To make the bread, combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade. With the motor running, add the half cup of starter and the water. Adjust the amounts of water and flour so that the dough forms one soft ball. Process for 45 seconds. Scrape the dough into a bowl, cover, and let it rise overnight.

This amount of dough will make one large or two small loaves. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and form one or two round loaves. Wrap in floured tea towels, and let the bread rise.

Place one or two covered pots in the oven, and preheat the oven to 500º for at least 30 minutes. Turn out the dough (gently) into the pot(s), cover, reduce the heat to 450º, and bake until the loaves are done, 30 to 45 minutes. Let the loaves cool on a wire rack.


Slow-Rise Challah

Adapted from Nancy Baggett, Kneadlessly Simple

623 cups flour, divided
1 tablespoon salt
114 teaspoons yeast
13 cup honey
14 cup walnut oil (or other nut oil)
214 cups water
2 eggs plus one egg yolk
1 egg for egg wash, optional
Sesame or poppy seeds, optional

Mix together thoroughly 513 cups of the flour, the salt, yeast, honey, oil, and water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise overnight for 12 to 18 hours. If the dough expands too quickly, deflate and refrigerate the dough.

Beat the two eggs together with the egg yolk, then add these eggs and the remaining 113 cups of flour to the bread dough. Combine thoroughly; a little kneading, perhaps in the heavy-duty electric mixer, may not be amiss here. The idea, though, is to thoroughly combine everything, not to develop gluten. Form the bread into two or three braided loaves using your favorite braiding technique. Put the loaves on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let the loaves rise until almost doubled.

Preheat the oven to 375°. If desired, beat the egg for the egg wash and brush all over the loaves. You may also just use the leftover egg white. If you like your challah seeded, sprinkle with seeds. Bake until done, which should take about 30 minutes.

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