Most people today bake bread for enjoyment. They do it because they like the flavor, not because it is the only way to get a loaf of bread.
Grandma made four loaves at a time, but today's cooks are more likely to bake a single loaf, often with the help of a bread machine.
Some bakers make those once-a-year yeast dough recipes such as Hot Cross Buns and Easter breads, many of which are heirloom recipes.
Hot cross buns are small, lightly sweet yeast buns that contain raisins or currants, and sometimes chopped candied fruit. Before the bun is baked, a cross is slashed in the top. After baking, a confectioners' sugar icing is used to fill the cross.
Easter breads are often embedded with colored hard-cooked eggs that are placed in the yeast dough before it is baked. The custom is used by cooks of many ethnic backgrounds, including Italian and Greek.
Purists will say that a recipe handed down from generation to generation should be prepared exactly the same way. But when it comes to time-consuming yeast breads and rolls, shortcuts are often welcome.
Making an heirloom recipe with a bread-machine or a food processor calls for sharpening your math skills.
"All bread recipes are a ratio of flour to liquid," said Linda West Eckhardt, co-author with Diana Collingwood Butts of Bread in Half the Time (out of print) and Rustic European Breads (Doubleday, $25). "That is 3 cups of flour to 1 cup of liquid. You have to knock back the recipe to that proportion."
Many heirloom recipes called for six to 12 cups of flour, enough for two to four loaves of bread. "Bread machines, made for one loaf, hold about three to three and a half cups of flour," she said. "All you have to do is break the code."
Remember that eggs count as part of the liquid. Two eggs add up to about half a cup of liquid, she said.
A common dry ingredient is nonfat dry milk, which improves the structure of the bread. "Bakers have used dry milk for years, not because of the flavor, but because of the structure," said Mrs. Eckhardt, who likens the concept to bubble gum. "You want good strong gum to hold the bubble. Yeast is similar, with the development of gluten. The structure [of bread] under the microscope looks like a wasp's nest, where you want each cell wall to make be sturdy and remain in place once the bread is baked." Dry milk helps with that structure.
Keep the sugar in sweet yeast doughs in proportion, too.
Several years ago, Mrs. Eckhardt developed a basic pecan sweet dough recipe that gives rise to diverse pecan breads.
To make the dough, you can use a bread machine, food processor, or your hands. Let it rise once,
then decide which recipe you want to use.
Mrs. Eckhardt, who does free-
lance recipe development, prefers to use a bread machine. "I love the idea of dumping all the ingredients in, punching a button, and having the dough made while I do something else," she said when she developed the recipe.
"When we were writing the first
bread book, we were one of the first to show how to make bread in a food processor," said the New Jersey resident. "Last week, I used the food processor when I was making 12 bread recipes for Country Living magazine. If you are making a lot of breads, you might find the food processor more useful than the bread machine."
Making bread includes the techniques of yeast, kneading, and rising.
Active dry yeast is available in two forms: traditional and fast-rising. If fast-rising yeast is used, check the dough after half the rising time to see if it has risen to double in size.
Kneading turns a sticky mass of dough into a smooth elastic ball. It develops gluten, which gives bread its volume, structure, and fine texture. By hand, kneading is done with a pressing-folding-turning action performed by pressing down the dough with the heels of both hands, then pushing away from the body. The dough is then folded in half and given a quarter turn, and the process is repeated. Well-kneaded dough is smooth and elastic.
When it comes to rising, warm dough will rise faster, which is why it is placed in a warm, draft-free place such as an oven. If you are using an electric or gas oven, heat it at the lowest setting for one minute, then turn it off. Place the bowl on a center rack and close the door.
Bread machines are great for making and kneading dough. "I like to shape the bread myself," she said.
Granted, there are times when you want to bake four loaves at a time, and in that case the traditional method with larger amounts of ingredients are followed.
No matter which way you make your dough, recipes such as traditional Hot Cross Buns or creative new breads will be a great addition to any springtime menu.
For those who want to work ahead for the Easter holiday, note that after the first rising, the dough can be frozen for later baking. Punch the dough down and double-wrap it with plastic wrap or foil, sealing it tightly. Put it in a freezer-lock plastic bag. When you retrieve it from the freezer, let the dough defrost and thoroughly warm, said Mrs. Eckhardt. Then it can be shaped and rise again.
Pecan Easter Egg Braid embedded with colorful eggs will bring oohs and aahs from your family. For a special dinner presentation, use the same basic pecan bread dough with fresh herbs for Rustic European Rosemary Pecan Bread. You can even omit the pecans for Rosemary Bread.
For a one-hour sweet bread, try Hot Cross Buns or Mrs. Eckhardt's recipe for Orange Pecan Rolls.
Easy Onion Focaccia is an Italian bread shaped into a large, flat found that is flavored with onion, garlic, and butter. Many Italian recipes opt for olive oil rather than melted butter. Take your pick.