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By Marne Wilson
Before you begin, gather your equipment and make sure that it is spotlessly clean. Any lingering traces of previous attempts will contaminate the batch right from the start.
You need to plan for expansion, so although it may seem ridiculous at this stage, use the biggest bowl you have. Fill the bottom with quality bread flour, not all-purpose flour. (Using flour made from the hardest wheat will give your bread the resilience to stay soft.)
On the stovetop, heat some milk and a chunk of butter. When the milk is the right temperature, the butter will begin to melt on its own. Turn the burner off at that moment.
Although amateurs assume they are unimportant seasonings, you must add both sugar and salt. Sugar will give the yeast energy to grow, and salt will provide structure. Both are vital for your bread to rise and stay that way.
Sprinkle the yeast on top of the liquid. If everything is the right temperature, you should see signs of life, but don’t expect too much at this stage. This is the beginning of a long process, not a cheap parlor trick.
Pour the liquid over the waiting flour and stir with a wooden spoon. At first the dough will be a sticky mess, but then a ball will form as if by magic. No matter how many times this has happened to you before, take the time to be amazed.
The dough will want to cling to everything it touches, but you need to maintain boundaries. Spread a handful of flour on a clean surface, dust it over your hands, and begin to knead. As you work the dough, it will become supple and develop character. You may need to add a bit more flour, but don’t overindulge, or the bread will become too tough in the end.
Once the dough stops sticking, it’s ready to rise. Put it back in the bowl and set it someplace just a bit warmer than normal. You must never forget that it’s there, but at the same time not obsess. Peeking too often will let all the warmth escape, but forgotten dough will turn unmanageable in time. You’ll know the dough is ready when you touch
it and leave an imprint that stays forever.
The next part will seem cruel. Make a fist and punch hard in the middle of the dough. Many large gas bubbles will have accumulated, and it is better to release them now than risk the whole loaf falling later.
After this shock, your dough will need a short time to rest. It needs to forget about you, but you can’t forget about it, so this is a good time to look to the future and grease your bread pans. Once the dough has relaxed, shape it carefully into loaves, and let them rise again to fill the pans all the way to the top.
Preheat the oven, and bake until the tops are brown and hard enough to rap with your knuckles. Turn the loaves out of the pans immediately to let them breathe.
Before the bread cools too much, brush the top with butter. There’s nothing wrong with making things look pretty so that everyone appreciates your hard work.
Rest now, secure in the knowledge that you have made good bread. If wrapped and stored properly, it will last you for many days.