I think I’m beginning to understand why so many cultures view bread as a holy thing.
Let me back up a bit.
I’ve always been more of a cook than a baker. Don’t get me wrong, I love baking, but the need for exact measurements has always been a bit of a turn-off for me. Plus I’ve been known to accidentally use salt instead of sugar to make cookies, or to put in only half the amount of flour needed, or to forget the eggs altogether–there have been many baking disasters. And then there’s the fact that so many baked things seem to contain tons of sugar and butter, which is of course what makes them so good, but when the end result is a delicious albeit VERY unhealthy product that I really can’t eat all by myself, sometimes baking just doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Of course, living in ovenless apartments in Japan makes me miss baking with a genuine, lonely ache. I crave baked ANYTHING like never before here. Sometimes I bake stuff in the toaster oven, but that’s just not the same.
Until this week, I’d never baked a loaf of bread from scratch. If baking was intimidating, baking bread was first academic job talk-level intimidating. There were chemical processes going on that had to be carefully monitored. There was a great deal of time (and apparently muscle, for all the kneading) involved. There were mysterious ingredients like yeast that I didn’t even know where to buy.
It’s kind of bizarre how excited I was by this. Seriously, I was giddy. The idea that I might not have to pine for baked goods…AND that it apparently wasn’t too hard to put a couple of ingredients together and end up with bread…was sort of a revelation.
I decided to start easy, with bread that wasn’t really bread–more like a cross between bread and cake, with no yeast, rising time, or kneading required. I made up a batch of Ina Garten’s cheddar dill cornbread mix, popped it in the rice cooker, set the timer to the usual setting for a batch of white rice, and waited, half expecting to open the lid and find a gooey mess. But forty minutes later it was done. Fluffy, golden, and perfect.
Confidence boosted, I decided to go for “real” bread. And I have to say, if you’ve never made a loaf of bread from scratch–do it. Just do it once. Sure, it’s time-consuming and bread machines probably make the whole process WAY easier with little difference in taste. But if you’ve never made one of the most basic foods in the world yourself from beginning to end, the first time is really kind of magical.
For starters, you’re dealing with something that is ALIVE. When you put the dry yeast in warm water it actually bubbles and froths, and when you mix it with simple flour and milk and pound it into a ball and let it sit for an hour, it GROWS. And then you take it out and punch it and knead it a bit more and then it REALLY grows, like triples in size.
As if that wasn’t awesome enough, when you actually start BAKING your bread it fills your whole apartment with this beautiful smell, sort of a combination of yeast and butter and rosemary and whatever else you’ve elected to put in your bread. Then you take it out, and it’s this golden, crusty ball (the shape of my rice cooker means that all bread looks sort of like a large disk). And you wait (impatiently) for it to cool, and then you cut into it and steam rises and it’s all you can do to keep from stuffing moist handfuls of deliciousness into your mouth.
So far I’ve done the aforementioned cornbread, a modified version of A Modern Girl’s / Knifing Forking Spooning’s cheesy jalapeno bread (no jalapenos, no cheese, used olive oil instead of butter and added dried rosemary), and a slightly modified version of that (half butter and half olive oil [better, a little more moist] and finely chopped olives). Now I can’t stop thinking of more recipes to try. Next on the list is pizza bread–same dough but with pieces of salami, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, sundried tomatoes, basil, and oregano.
But why stop at bread? I’ve often lamented that Japanese-style ovens just don’t get the food hot enough, meaning that the wonderful crispy surface that makes foods like lasagna, roast veggies, casseroles, and roast meats so good just doesn’t happen. But my rice cooker seems to produce a wonderfully crispy crust via the bottom of the rice pan. So maybe I could make a sort of upside-down lasagna or casserole, with a layer of cheese followed by a layer of tomato sauce and noodles, and then when you flipped the whole thing upside down onto a plate you’d have a crispy crust.
Even if that sounds too weird, you really should try baking a loaf of bread from scratch if you haven’t done it before. Make it in a rice cooker or an oven if you’ve got one–if it’s summer it’s nice to know that the rice cooker will heat up your kitchen a lot less. For me, at least, baking bread got me thinking about cooking and staple foods in a whole new way, and opened up a lot of cooking possibilities that I thought were off the table.
RICE COOKER BREAD BAKING TIPS
1. Be careful about the temperature of the warm water that you mix with your yeast–too hot and it’ll shock the yeast and kill it (the phrase “shock the yeast” always makes me think of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” video), too cold and it won’t activate. Basically the water should be warm to the touch–not so hot that it burns you, but hot enough to notice. If, after mixing your yeast with the water and sugar and letting it sit for 10 minutes you don’t see any bubbles in the mixture, start over again with another package of yeast.
2. Don’t worry too much about the consistency of your dough. My initial ball of dough was lumpy and I couldn’t get all the flour to stick to it, but it rose just fine and tasted great too.
3. Have fun and be creative! This is one of many wonderful things about bread baking–you can add whatever you want. Nuts, olives, cheese, jalapenos, herbs, raisins, cinnamon, whatever.
I think I’m going to need a bigger rice cooker.