I listen to jazz music when I bake bread.
I have this theory that it makes the bread taste better. It's probably not true. But things are going well for me in the bread department so I'm honestly a little afraid to stop now.
I grew up in a family of bakers and cooks. Both of my grandmothers, specifically. I learned most of my baking skills from my late grandmother, Edwina, who taught me how to scoop flour properly. Fluffing it with a fork and then scooping into a measuring cup. Avoiding a common novice bakers mistake of packing the flour too tightly into the measuring cup, so that it lead to dense cakes and heavy bread loaves with too much flour.
She was a phenomenal bread baker. In fact, so is my mother, and pretty much every woman in my family. I have wonderful memories of when my mom would have a fresh loaf baking. That fantastic smell wafting throughout the house, and the growl in my stomach as I waited with anticipation. The minute it was out of the oven my sister and I would run to the kitchen, watching as my mother sliced the bread open and steam spilled out the top. We'd eat it hot, skipping a plate and holding it in our hands, only a paper towel standing in between our palms and that delicious crust. I'd cover mine with butter and honey, letting the soft bread warm me up from the inside out. A grin on my face as I tore the bread into pieces and tasted it's soft and fluffy filling. Making sure to eat the entire thing before asking for another piece, because my mom promised that the crust would make my hair curly.
Bread baking is such a ritual, it takes so much time and energy. You have to paitently wait for the yeast to activate, allowing the dough to rise. Kneading the dough is a special skill, acquired only by watching and then getting your hands on the dough itself. I learned by watching my grandmother, during summers at her home in Eastern Washington. She'd toil away in her small kitchen, sunlight shining through the windows and flour covering her apron. She'd gently knead the dough, using the heels of her palms as she whistled. A memory so vivid that it would visit me again and again, when I eventually moved into that house while I attended college. When the temperature was just right, and the sun hit the walls just so, that house would fill up again with the smell of her bread. It lingered in the wall paper after so many years, and the summer that I lived in the house alone I would sit on the stairs, letting the familiar smell surround me. Years of history and tradition, baked into the house and becoming part of the foundation itself.
I always wanted to learn how to bake bread, but it was something I was intimidated by for a very long time. I'm comfortable with cakes and pies, confident with cookies and very capable with anything involving chocolate. But bread was different. A skill so deeply woven into the fabric of my history that I didn't want to be bad at it. I felt like I would let down every woman that came before me if I produced a lackluster loaf of bread. So I started small, pizza doughs and cinnamon rolls. Things that involved rising and kneading, but were easily covered with sauce or sugar if I needed to disguise any mistakes. And then I moved on to breadsticks and rolls, smaller versions of their daunting counterparts.
And like my grandmother before me, I learned to develop a ritual while I bake bread. Mine is still developing, as I haven't quite masted the art of bread baking fully. But I do love jazz music, and I love the way its soft melody wraps around me while I'm baking. I like to imagine that it soaks into the bread as it's rising. I also spend time writing while I'm baking bread. It's a good excuse to sit at the table near my kitchen and put my feelings onto paper. The smell of freshly baked warm bread that was so recognizable in my grandmother's home is now easily found in mine. I still have yet to make a real loaf of bread, but I know I'll get there someday.
I feel like I'm part of a tradition a little bigger than myself now. An entire line of women in my family, all baker's before me. We're all connected somehow, and we're all covered in flour. I hope I make them proud.
yields 8-12 pretzel buns depending on size
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 packet active dry yeast ( 2 + 1/4 teaspoons)
- 2 + 3/4 cups all purpose flour or bread flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt + more for topping
- olive oil
- 6 cups water
- 1/4 cup baking soda
In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the warm water and yeast. Let it sit for about 5 minutes, until the yeast is activated and you can see bubble forming on top. If it doesn't do this, you will probably need to find a new source of yeast because this one has been killed.
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar with a whisk. Add in the activated yeast and water and mix together with a dough hook attachment or with a wooden spoon.
Now knead the dough until it becomes stretchy and elastic on a flour lined surface, you can also do this using the dough hook attachment, but either way it will take about 8-10 minutes
In another bowl (or the same one that's been washed and dried), lightly coated with olive oil, place the ball of kneaded dough and cover with a tea towel. Leave it to rise anywhere from 60 minutes to two hours. I place mine on top of the fridge where it's nice and warm, but you can also place it in the oven with the light on if your house is especially chilly. You'll know it's ready when the dough has doubled in size.
Punch the dough down using your fist, and then cut the dough into pieces. Roll them up and leave them to rise again using the same method as before, this time allowing 30 minutes to an hour for the rise.
After the second rise, pre heat the oven to 425 degrees F and set the water to boil. Prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment paper and lightly oiling the surface. Once the water is boiling, add in the baking soda. The water should fizz, and you'll know it's time to add the balls of dough. Do about 3 at a time, allowing them to boil on one side for about 2 minutes, before flipping and boiling on the other side for another 2 minutes. Boiling in the baking soda/water will give the buns the familiar pretzel coating. After the boil is done, remove the buns and let the water drain off of them. Then place on the prepared baking sheet and boil the rest of the buns.
Once the buns are on the sheet, use a sharp knife to cut x's into the balls. They should be firm and puffy now, but the x's will reveal dough that hasn't been touched by baking soda. Sprinkle with salt and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes. They will be ready when the tops are golden brown and crispy, but soft on the inside.
These buns are best served warm, the day of, but will store in an airtight container for about 5 days.
Recipe adapted from One Green Planet