The Bread Baking Bug

Although I do enjoy cooking, I truly love baking. My journey into baking began with my mom and me making Christmas cookies together when I was about five years old. From there I went on to bake all types of cookies, brownies and cakes by myself. Although my dad loved pies, I rarely made them except for Thanksgiving. Through the years I most often baked cookies, particularly chocolate chip cookies. I have always found the process very joyful and relaxing. Even visualizing making the cookie batter calms me. But I never baked bread. That is until the bread baking bug hit me.

My bread baking path started innocently enough in 2020 while I was reading Mirabai Starr’s book Wild Mercy. In one of her chapters she described a beautiful way to approach the Friday night Sabbath. I had never before celebrated Sabbath but Mirabai’s words lead me to want to create my own ceremony including homemade challah. My great grandmother Honey Mama made challah regularly. My mom has her recipe but it includes eggs. I have been vegan since 2017 so I needed to come up with a recipe for challah that didn’t use any animal products. Given how much I love baking, I have done a fair amount of research and experimentation to create vegan versions of all my usual baked goods. I have made many vegan variations of chocolate chip cookies, chocolate, vanilla and lemon cakes and cupcakes, frostings, coffee cakes, muffins, pastries and every other kind of cookie imaginable. But I had never made a challah before, let alone a vegan challah.

Reading recipes for baked goods as well as savory dishes is one of my favorite past times. Bread recipes were not part of my usual genre. So I dug into reading recipe after recipe for challah. Some were vegan and some were not vegan. I finally found two vegan recipes that I liked so I took a little bit from one recipe and a little bit from the other to make a recipe that appealed to me. (I combine recipes all the time to get just what I want). Making challah was a good place for me to start bread baking because I love the art and beauty of the braided loaf. I watched many videos with different challah designs and decided on the 4-braid loaf. It came out quite lovely. And it tasted really good. A few weeks later I tried a variation with orange juice and olive oil that is a bit denser and has a yellow tint like the traditional egg-based versions and has a square braid. Very tasty.

Since 2020 my bread baking seemed to be limited to an occasional challah around the High Holidays in the fall. However late last year the category of my regular recipe reading hobby expanded to include breads of all types. Then in March of this year I took out a half dozen or so bread books from the library. I read probably upward of sixty bread recipes between those books and online trying to get the courage to make a traditional rustic loaf. I was a bit intimidated because I have a friend who bakes beautiful sour dough breads and spends a great deal of time creating her delicious loaves. I finally was ready to take a stab at baking a crusty bread and decided for simplicity to make it all white and not bother with sour dough.

I am fortunate that we have four different sizes of Le Creuset dutch ovens that we got at their outlet store many years ago. We use them for many different dishes but mostly at Thanksgiving when we make two types of stuffing (technically called dressings since they aren’t inside a turkey). A dutch oven is a wonderful way to get a beautifully crusty loaf of bread in a home oven. But the Le Creuset pots don’t come with knobs on their lids that can handle the high heat needed for baking bread. After a quick online shop I was able to get inexpensive stainless steel handle replacements. I was ready to go! My first try was a simple so called “no-knead” bread and the results made me so happy that I have made four more loaves since then. I have the bread baking bug.

My first rustic bread

I didn’t need to buy any specialty tools beyond the stainless steel knobs. It turns out that many years ago Andy’s mom gave us a bread making kit from King Arthur that we used once then put away. Hidden in the kitchen drawers and cupboards I found a lame, a Danish whisk and even a banneton proofing basket (that I have yet to use). I have since bought a large bucket to hold enough dough to make four, one-pound loaves over a few weeks time. I also got a new lame to try different slash designs. I am, however, going through much more flour that I was used to when only baking cookies and cakes.

I can’t say what comes next. I feel fairly comfortable with the no-knead approach and I already have whole wheat and rye flours ready to expand beyond white. My friend has generously offered up her sourdough starter if and when I decide to take that on. For now I am very happy to know that I can create a beautiful and tasty loaf of bread whenever I want. But I know that cookies will remain my bread and butter so to speak.

xoxo Rachel

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