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Cooking is an art. Varied flavor profiles blended with differing textures, vibrant colors  and good presentation can turn a meal into a masterpiece, depending on the skill and creativity of the artist and their grasp of the medium. With most cooking you can easily alter a recipe to suit your tastes, add or subtract ingredients on a whim. As long as you know your methods and have a little technique, you can have a plated piece of artwork that is appreciated and understood by those you share it with.
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Baking,  on the other hand, is science. The ratios are exact, the ingredients specific and the methods rigid. Unlike most cooking,  you miss an ingredient, get the ratio wrong or skip a step and the result can be a disastrous.

Baking requires knowledge of chemical and organic reactions, processes of how to create texture, and the methods used to achieve desired results.  In cooking, if the soup needs more salt when you have finished cooking it, you can add more salt. With baking, you forget the salt and you may have to scrap the whole thing and start over. Baking can be tricky like that.

I am not saying cooking isn’t science. There is an actual science to cooking. It just isn’t as strict in adherence to the rules as baking. I am also not saying baking can’t be art. A beautiful wedding cake or a golden, lofty loaf of bread can be as pleasing to the eye and imagination as anything hung on a gallery wall.  Baking is just very exact.
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From biscuits to yeast bread, cookies to cakes, all require the artist to work within these specific rules  in order to achieve success. Science, folks.

The theory of Perfect Loaf is a bit of a joke in my household. Yeast bread has been my Achilles heel for a long time. I can make biscuits,  muffins, cakes and cookies, but yeast bread… not so much. At least, not until after I went to culinary school.  Even now, 12 years past my training, I still struggle to achieve the perfect loaf of bread. Soft and spongy, uniform in height and texture, all this has been a problem at one time or another.

Just getting a yeast bread past the first rise was hard. I have baked many an imperfect loaf. It can be frustrating. Baking bread was one of those things that just screamed skilled homemaker to me when I was a young mom. I failed miserably in this, however. At least until I learned in my classes the scientific methods of baking.
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Meet my bread machine.  I love this thing. It is one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that I just had to have at our temporary place. I only had so much space for my tools in this new kitchen and this behemoth was one of those items I can’t live without.
Now before you start screaming, “Bread cheater!”, let me explain why this thing is amazing.

First, the thing is nearly 18 years old and is still going strong. A true testament to buying quality equipment and taking care of it saves you money and time in the long run.

Secondly, many years of computer typing, mouse clicking and administration work, coupled with the wielding of a heavy chefs knife in repeated motions has led to some carpal tunnel and arthritis in my wrists and hands. This beauty saves me some stress on the joints from mixing and kneading.  Saving my hands from the ache is always a bonus.

Now, I said I had a problem with first rise.  My handy, dandy bread machine helps me with that. Not only does it save my hands and wrists from the ache, but it creates the perfect environment for the first rise. It has the perfect temperature and humidity level for the bread I just couldn’t seem to achieve in my kitchen. I don’t consider this cheating. This is utilization of the tools at hand to achieve the desired result. I only use it on the dough setting for first rise. After that, I am more hands on.  The machine, coupled with exacting ingredient measurement and careful time management has resulted in quite a few Perfect Loaves that I can share with my family, though the occasional Imperfect Loaf does rear its ugly crust. Croutons anyone?

The following is a recipe is one of our favorite white breads here at home. It is great for breakfast toast, sandwiches or alongside a meal. It is very all-purpose,  and quite tasty. I am demonstrating the method using my bread machine,  but will include instructions for those of you who are not first-rise-challenged, like myself.

Family Style White Bread

yield – 2 loaves 9-12 “x 5-1/2”
Ingredients:

2 packages active dry yeast
5 to 5 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups hot water, 120-130°F
Melted butter for brushing loaves after baking.

Tip- when using bread flour you may use less than with the all-purpose to make a good, stiff dough.
Spoon flour into your cup measure to avoid compaction which can make your dough too stiff for the yeast to make rise properly.
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Machine instructions fill your bread machine according to manufacturers instructions  with all ingredients except butter.
Manual instructions measure yeast,  2 cups flour, sugar, salt and oil into a mixing bowl, blending well. Stir in hot water and beat with a spoon until dough is smooth and satiny. Slowly add remaining flour and mixing until dough pulls away from the bowl’s sides. Cover and let stand 10 minutes.

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machine  Put on dough setting and let ‘er go! Within the first five minutes or so, check and make sure everything is incorporating. Scrape the sides with a rubber spatula,  if needed, to get the ingredients to work into the dough.
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machine Within the first 10 minutes make sure the dough has a smooth, satiny appearance, a pliable texture and all ingredients have incorporated completely.  If your dough is dull or too stiff, add a tablespoon of water. If it is too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour, as the dough is kneading.
Counter top- turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny. Same as above, if it is too stiff, add a sprinkling of water. If too sticky, add a sprinkle of flour. Place dough I. A greased bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
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First rise! Isn’t it beautiful?
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Once past first rise remove dough onto a lightly floured surface and punch down. This helps distribute the air evenly through the dough and keep the holes small. Not doing this can lead to big tunnels in your bread and falling during baking..
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Divide dough in half
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Form each half into a loaf and place one in each of two greased 9-1/2″x5-1/2″ loaf pans. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

I like to use my oven for this part. I can heat it to 170°F with a sheet pan with a little water in it, then shut it off. The warmth and humidity linger in the oven for second rise. I just have to be Oh So gentle when removing the loaves to heat my oven to baking temperature,  so I don’t cause them to collapse before they make it to baking. Be aware of the dreaded over-proofing, as leaving bread to rise too long will create large air cells  in the bread that cause the gluten strands in the bread to stretch too much and lose the ability to support its own weight, causing collapse.
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Bake loaves at 375°F for 35-40 minutes until dark golden brown.
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Brush warm loaves out of the oven with melted butter and let stand until cooled. Then slice to eat or wrap airtight and freeze for later use. Fresh bread doesn’t have the preservatives of commercial loaves. They will mold more quickly.
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Enjoy your Perfect Loaf!
Baking is science, and can be complicated,  but there are ways to simplify the process. Our ability to use tools makes  success more achievable, and desired results are the goal here. However, don’t worry if you do not always  get your Perfect Loaf. Perfection is not always  obtained, even if we strive for it. Rather,it is learning the hows and whys  of failure that get us to understand better the theory of Perfect Loaf.

Failure isn’t always complete, either. The world needs croutons, too.

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