How to Bake Bread

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Figure 1: Obligatory macro-lens shot
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One of my new year’s resolutions is to bake more bread. A few months ago, I received a copy of the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. Brown is a Zen priest who leads retreats and cooking classes at the San Francisco Zen Center. The documentary How to Cook Your Life is a great primer on Brown’s Zen approach to cooking and baking. Background info out of the way, let’s get floury. The Tassajara book mainly uses a sponge method for making bread, where part of the flour is added to the liquids and yeast, creating a batter or sponge, which sits for a bit before the rest of the flour is added to make the dough. At first I was a little resistant to this method, but once you do it a few times you get much faster at mixing in the flour, and supposedly it produces a better loaf.

The standard Tassajara yeasted bread recipe can be found here via Google Books. I’m not going to bother writing out the whole process; I highly recommend getting a copy of the book if you’re interested in baking bread. Below you’ll find my photos and a few notes from my most recent batch, a sesame bread.

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Figure 2: Sponge mixture

Since it’s pretty cold in my house, I turn on the oven for 30 seconds or so and then let the bread rise in it. The warmer the air, the faster and higher the bread will rise, but I wouldn’t go above 85 or 90 degrees F.

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Figure 3: Sponge+time+more flour = Dough!

As I said above, this is the sesame  bread variation (recipe #3 in the 25th anniversary edition of Tassajara). I pulsed about 2 cups of sesame seeds in a food processor until pretty much all the seeds were broken apart (a minute or 2). If you make your sesame meal from seeds as I did, be sure not to process them for too long or it will turn into tahini, or sesame paste.

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Figure 4: Dough after first rising

Even though I have a pretty good feel for how much a dough will rise, I still get a kick out of taking the first peek and seeing that it doubled in size. Good work, yeast.

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Figure 5: Dough in loaf pans

I need to work on forming the dough into loaves. As you can see, it doesn’t quite fill up the whole area of the pan, which leads to a slightly lopsided loaf. It’s just a matter of aesthetics; as long as you knead the dough a bit before putting it into the pans, the bread comes out just fine.

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Figure 6: Success

I didn’t use an egg wash on the tops of the loaves, so it has a great rough texture. I’d highly recommend the sesame variation if you like halva or other sesame-flavored things. Lightly toasted, it makes for a delicious breakfast with greek yogurt, sliced tomatoes, and a bit of salt.