The presents are all opened, Christmas dinner is finished — or a delicious brunch from food left over from Christmas Eve.
There are no football games, basketball bores you, and you only need to see A Christmas Story once each year. You could go to the movies, but Les Misérables looks overproduced and you’ve already seen Skyfall.
Why not enjoy a project with the family, one that can involve the kids, one that results in something delicious at the end?
Why not bake some bread? It’s fun, it’s absorbing. And it makes the house smell absolutely wonderful.
Best of all, there is something primal, something therapeutic about the act of baking bread. Mixing the ingredients connects us with our ancestors, kneading the dough releases stress and tension. Making bread is an act of creation at its most elemental; there is a simple inspiring poetry in it.
And when it is all done and you can see and feel and smell the fruit of your labors. And then you can toast it.
Baking bread is one of those activities that takes a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to perfect. The most satisfying part is the journey; each loaf you make is usually better than the last.
Some people let bread machines do all the work, but some people prefer to live in a push-button world. They aren’t interested in the journey, they are concerned only with the results.
Some people worry about the time involved. They say they can’t afford the hours it takes to make a dough, proof it, let it rise, and bake it. And bread-making can indeed require an investment of time, most of it spent waiting for everything to be ready. But some breads can be made quickly, and with results that are just as satisfying.
For this Christmas Day, we made breads from easy to hard, from short preparation times to long, from simple enough for a novice to more of a challenge for an accomplished cook. But all can be made in a day — no starters or sponges here; these are all breads you can make today.
And the kids can help.
Yeast/kneading: No yeast, minimal kneading
You’ll be surprised anything this fast and easy to make could turn into something as complex as bread. And then when you taste it, well, be ready to speak in terms of superlatives. This simple loaf is craggy and has a rough exterior, but the taste is entrancing.
The secret is the buttermilk. If you’ve never baked with buttermilk before, you’ll be amazed at how its mild tang adds an addictive flavor to batters and doughs (it’s also great in biscuits, pancakes, and scones).
Although soda bread tastes great on its own, it’s even better when toasted with butter and jam. You may find yourself craving it every day for breakfast.
Max’s Beer Bread
Beer? In bread?
Sure. Think about it: Beer is basically just liquid bread. Mix it with some flour, some baking powder to make it rise, and a little salt for flavor, and you have an insanely easy loaf of bread. The hardest part is greasing and flouring the pan (spray with nonstick spray or rub with butter, and shake flour inside to cover every surface).
This particular version yields a dense crust and a soft crumb — that’s the part that isn’t the crust. It also tastes a little more like beer than some other versions, so don’t think in terms of jam. Enjoy it rather with slices of cheese or meat sandwiches.
The recipe for this rustic loaf, as well as the soda bread, comes from a cookbook published by the Four Sisters Inns, small bed-and-breakfast hotels, primarily in California, justly renowned for their fabulous breakfasts and baked goods.
The First Loaf
The great Bernard Clayton recommends this bread for beginners, but let us say rather that it is for ambitious beginners — it requires kneading (which for some of us is the most fun part of baking bread), and the dough has to be set aside twice to rise. At any rate, it is delicious enough for bakers of any level of experience.
It is a richly flavored white bread, perfect for sandwiches or toast. The crust is traditional, and is what you think of when you think of bread crust. If you want a softer and even more flavorful crust, just brush it with melted butter after it comes out of the oven.
Berghoff Beer Bread
With yeast and whole-wheat flour mixed into the all-purpose flour, and without the use of cornmeal, this is a lighter, more refined, and more complexly flavored bread than Max’s Beer Bread. A little bit of brown sugar wonderfully complements the beer while also feeding the yeast.
The yeast specified in the recipe, incidentally, is the quick-rise kind. If you want to use regular yeast, double the amount of time allotted for both risings.
Like Max’s loaf, this is best for sandwiches or just toasted with butter. But keep the jam jar closed.
One of the most beautiful loaves of bread you will ever see, this is also one of the richest. It calls for three sticks of butter, five egg yolks and more than a pint of milk just to make two loaves. No wonder it tastes so great.
This bread is a Serbian tradition, often served on one’s patron saint’s day, but it is good at any time. The distinctive shape is achieved by braiding together three ropes of dough and then wrapping the braid in a coil before baking.
All the egg makes it taste somewhat like a thinner version of challah, so serve it plain or toasted, with butter and jam.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.