Why bake bread when you live in Bay Area? Acme, Della Fattoria, Grace, Brickmaiden, Thorough Bread, and Tartine (to name just a few favorites) all ply their trade around here, kneading and rising and selling their wares at storefront bakeries and supermarkets, gourmet stores and farmers' markets. Just as you can usually pick up a decent bottle of wine or a six-pack of microbrew at even a dumpy corner bodega here, so you don't have to go far to score a pretty excellent loaf of bread.
So, yes, I'm grateful to all the dedicated professional bakers out there. But sometimes I don't want the hard-crusted, rip-and-tug Euro-styled country loaf that has become our city's default daily bread. Sometimes, my jam and I want a slice that's a little more dense and mellow, something without gaping jelly-dripping holes, something whose crumb is worth chewing. A bread that holds up to slicing and toasting. A butter-and-honey bread, a bread for peanut butter and banana sandwiches, in short, a bread that you can only have if you make it yourself.
Of course, there are perfectly nice, widely available loaf breads out there. Vital Vittles makes a bunch, as does Alvarado Street Bakery. But somehow, pre-sliced bread twist-tied in a plastic bag always feels a little soulless to me, no matter how many wheat berries and sunflower seeds are found within.
There is nothing like the smell of homemade bread to perfume your house on a winter's day, and nothing like the taste of it, either. And any invitation—to dinner, to teatime, to dinner that you hope will be followed by breakfast—is sweetened by the nonchalant appearance of bread baked by your very own hands.
But before you laugh hollowly, contemplating your overscheduled life with no room for rising in it, I say, the cool, slow, low-yeast rise is your friend, my busy pal. Most bread recipes call for way too much yeast and heat. Why? Because a dough loaded up with yeast, like a Long Island Iced Tea or a turbo-charged vibrator, gets the job done faster. But the point here is the product, not how fast you can get there. A bread that rises slowly is a bread that tastes of grain, not yeast.
In fact, slowing down the time it takes for your bread to go from dough to loaf frees you up. A long, cool rise is actually much easier to manage, because you can leave the house for hours at a time and get all manner of things done while your dough is slowly inching up in the bowl. Plus, you have a lot more wiggle room. Since the rise goes slowly, it takes a lot longer to get to the threat-of-collapse stage.
Given that the average drafty Victorian is fairly cool, even with the hallway heater on, a bowl of dough left on the kitchen counter will probably take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to double in size. And if things (playdates, the line at the DMV, prime makeout opportunities) get away from you, you can always punch it down and let it go for a second rise before shaping it into loaves.
In general, it's pretty hard to screw this bread up. Once you make it a few times, you won't even need to measure; as long as the proportions are roughly the same, precision isn't necessary.
The one bread-killer is overheating the yeast; yeast dies outright at 140 degrees F, and doesn't much like temps over 120 degrees. So, make sure to dissolve your yeast in tepid water (drip some on your wrist; it should feel just about skin temperature, neither hot nor cold) and make sure that the cereal goop has cooled to barely lukewarm before you stir in the flour and yeast. (Stir the mix thoroughly to make sure there are no pockets of heat remaining before you add the yeast.)
Again, because I like a slow rise, I use ordinary active dry yeast, not rapid-rise or instant yeast. And speaking of yeast, it seems a lot of people worry about the viability of their yeast. Unless you bought it 10 years ago or have kept it stashed right over the stove, it's fine. Most jars or foil-sealed packets of yeast are good for a year or more at room temperature, even more if stored in the freezer or fridge. In decades of bread baking, the only bad yeast experience I've ever had has been with Rize Organic Yeast. In the 2 or 3 times I've tried this brand, it has never risen for me, leaving me with leaden lumps of useless dough. With the readily available Red Star and Fleischmann's brands, no problems.
Finally, this bread is the best use I know for that multi-grain, steel-cut hot cereal mix you find in the bulk bins at Rainbow Grocery or Berkeley Bowl. The texture depends on the nubbly chunkiness of the mix, so don't substitute powdery instant or quick-cooking cereal.
Easy Multi-Grain Bread
You could also make a vegan version by substituting vegetable oil or Earth Balance (the kind that comes in sticks, not in a tub) for the butter, and agave, maple, or brown-rice syrup for the honey. Molasses works too, although it will add a more prominent flavor to the finished loaf.
Makes 2 loaves
1 cup multi-grain hot cereal blend (not instant)
1/2 cup dry polenta
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp honey
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 packet active dry yeast (2 tsp)
1 cup rye flour
3 to 3 1/2 cups white flour (or a mix of whole wheat and white flour)
1. In a large bowl, combine cereal, polenta, butter, salt, and honey. Pour in boiling water and stir to combine. Set aside to cool, which will probably take about 30 minutes.
2. When mixture has cooled to lukewarm, it's time to get your yeast ready. Sprinkle yeast over 3 tablespoons of tepid water in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve.
3. Beat rye flour into cereal mixture. Stir in yeast, then add white and/or whole wheat flour, 1 cup at a time. Dough should be soft and sticky, but not so goopy that your hands turn into big gooey dough-paws when you try to knead it. Every batch will be different, depending on the humidity of the air and the moisture in your flour, but start with 3 cups, and save the remaining half-cup to sprinkle in as necessary while you knead.
4. If you can, let dough rest for 10 minutes before kneading. This helps the flour begin absorbing the liquid in the dough, so you won't have to add so much extra flour to make it manageable.
5. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Push the dough away from you with the heels of your hands. Fold it over towards you. Turn it a quarter turn to the right, and repeat. Push, fold, turn, for about 10 minutes, adding small sprinkles of flour as needed to keep it from getting unbearably sticky. When well-kneaded, it should feel like a relaxed inner thigh, or a lady's un-Pilatized stomach. (If naked ladies aren't your frame of reference, a man's torso will do just fine, but imagine more bear than buff.)
6. Drop the dough back in the bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise, preferably at around 70-75 degrees, for 3 to 5 hours, until doubled in bulk.
7. Press down gently to get all the air out. Divide in half and shape into two round loaves. Set on a lightly greased or parchment-covered baking sheet and let rise until doubled in size, anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, possibly more.
8. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until crust is well-browned. To avoid gumminess, let cool on a rack for at least an hour before you tear into it.