Friday, June 19, 2015

Braided Basil Bread



Baking bread at home is one of the most rewarding feelings a food-lover can have. Have you looked at what's in bread in the grocery store, lately? Here's what's in Nature's Own Honey 7 Grain Bread:


Ingredients: Whole wheat flour, water, enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), wheat gluten, brown sugar, honey, sunflower seed kernels, yeast, rolled oats, contains 2% or less of each of the following: salt,soybean oil, cultured wheat flour, vinegar, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl-2-lactylatemono- and diglyceridescalcium peroxide, calcium iodate, DATEMethoxylated mono- and diglyceridesazodicarbonamide), wheat bran, rye flakes, barley flakes, soy flour, buckwheat flour, bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, triticale,yellow corn grits, millet, soy grits, ground flaxseed, brown rice flour, calcium sulfate, soy lecithin, wheat starch, enzymes.
What's a dough conditioner?

It's basically this thing that many professional bakeries use in their breads to keep it from going stale, or molding...a kind of preservative. It's why most commercially made breads are so soft and squishy! I couldn't tell you what some of the other stuff is, but I do know that soy lecithin is a kind of emulsifier. You can use lecithin to make foams, like this one!

That's fun! But not really necessary in bread, if you ask me.

The bottom line is that you can very easily make your own bread at home with a small amount of effort and a little patience. It's the original "set it and forget it" food. Here's how I made mine.

Braided Basil Bread
  • 500 grams flour(I used all-purpose, but bread flour is great, too!)
  • 6 grams of yeast
  • 300-ish grams of water at body temperature(about a cup...it's humid here, so I had to vary certain things)
  • 1 egg OR a big glug of canola/grapeseed oil(you'll want a little fat in this one)
  • 10 leaves of basil, chiffonade
  • 25 grams brown sugar
  • 1 fat pinch of kosher salt
  • 50 grams of flax seed**
Combine the flour and yeast in the bowl of your standing mixer, and mix for about 45 seconds with the dough hook. Add the sugar, mix for another 15 seconds, and add in your egg/oil. You use the oil in place of the egg to make this bread vegan, which I did for a friend. Yeast is vegan, so you're okay there! 

While all of this is mixing in, you gather your basil and begin to chiffonade. I had both Italian and Thai basil from the Overland Park Farmers' Market, which I had visited the day before. It was gathered in this gorgeous bouquet, and I took a few leaves from each. 

To chiffonade, simply gather the leaves and lay one on top of the other, and then sort of roll it all together to form a "cigar" of basil. Then slice thinly crosswise to create long ribbons. You can follow the video tutorial above if this description is too vague. Add your basil chiffonade to the flour-oil mixture as it's mixing.  You'll want any herbs you add to be chopped fine, but still big enough to be visible for the final product. You can use any herb you like in this recipe. In addition to basil, I used some chopped carrot greens, which were from my trip to the farmers' market. This is optional, of course, and you can use whatever you like in this recipe. You can also add in about four cloves of garlic, that have been crushed, and then roughly chopped to this recipe, if you like.  The idea is to create a flavor profile that the yeast will feed off of, and thus flavor your bread.


Yeast are single-celled organisms that lay dormant in their little prison of the fridge, or the packet. Here in the United States, we mostly use dry-instant yeast, that's activated by putting in warm water. Yeast dies at 114 degrees F, though, so you don't want it too hot! Actually, if you use cool water, the bread will proof at a slower rate, and thus create more flavor. I personally prefer water that's at body temperature, which just means that the water shouldn't feel warm, but shouldn't feel cool.

Add in your water, now, and continue to mix. If you're using flax seed, go ahead and add it now. You don't have to add flax seed, but I like the extra little bit of fiber that it gives me. You can also use sunflower seeds, or any combination of chopped nuts, so long as it's a small amount. You may have to add more water, or more flour, depending on how humid your environment is, but it should form a round ball that climbs your dough hook with ease. Take your time to scrape down the dough hook every few minutes or so.
Thank you, TheFreshLoaf.com!

When the bread feels ready, take a tiny ball of it and roll it in your hands, then stretch it with your fingers and hold it up to the light. This is called the windowpane test, and it tells you when glutens have formed. You're looking for spider-y veins and glumps in your dough, and it shouldn't tear when stretched. If there are tears, keep kneading.

Gluten is your friend in this endeavor. Gluten is this wonderful protein web that traps in all of that gas that the yeast is forming by eating your flour, your sugar, your herbs and garlic and whatnot. The reason you want to flavor your bread now, while the yeast is still dormant, is that you want them to wake up and snack on that lovely basil. When it eats your flavoring agents(be they veggies or flour alone), it'll burp and fart and all of that gas it creates will be flavored with whatever you put it in, and thus perfume your entire loaf with yummy goodness!

Once your dough is ready, oil up a clean bowl(or just re-use your standing mixer bowl, just lube it up) with your fat of choice, set your nice ball of dough inside, all slathered with fat, and set in a warm place. I heat my oven to 250-300 degrees and just set it on the stove top, and cover it with a clean tea towel. You can use plastic wrap if you don't have a tea towel, of course.

This next bit is called proofing, and it'll take about an hour, depending on how warm or cool your environment is. If you house is warm, you can set it by a window and go grocery shopping. I've even been known to set a ball of dough out on the balcony when I was living in my apartment for heat. Either way, when the dough has doubled in size, now is the time for punching and shaping.

Remove your dough and set on a clean work surface. I used my linoleum counter tops, which didn't require flouring because of how much fat was on my dough. I braided mine into a four-strand loaf braid, but you can do a three strand, or just simply roll into a single loaf. The one thing you must do, no matter what, is punch down the dough so that the air bubbles pop. This is to create an even rise, and to create even more flavor. The little yeast-ies will keep on eating, keep on belching...after all, you've given them quite a bit to chew on! Whatever shape you decide on for your bread, make sure that it's set on your baking sheet tray with plenty of oil/panspray/whatever smack dab in the middle, so it has room to rise and double. Yes, you're doubling it again.

Here's an image tutorial that I snagged from PopSugar.com on how to braid a 4-strand challah loaf.


And here's a gorgeous pic from JournalsofaFrenchFoodie.com on how to do a 6-strand braid!


You can spend all day on google finding bread shapes, or just punch it down, roll it into a ball, and let it go to town. I preferred the 4-strand braid, as it's the shape I learned when I was in Culinary School. If you do choose a braid, make sure you pinch the ends together nice and hard, and then tuck under, nice and tight, so it won't come undone once proofed.

Cover your loaf with plastic(or your tea towel again) and let it set for another hour in that same warm place..or just until it's doubled. It'll be quite clear when it's ready to go into the oven, because it'll look like it's about to pop.

Is that a 4-strand braided loaf or are you just happy to see me...?
It's at this point you can choose to brush your loaf with oil, with egg wash, etc., for an extra something. You can brush with olive oil and set cracked black pepper and kosher salt on top, or more chopped herbs. I left mine plain so you could see what it looks like, just plain baked. Put in your oven at 400 degrees F, and let bake until the crust is golden-brown and it sounds hollow when knocked on. Mine took about 30 minutes, but yours might take more or less. Just check it in 20 minutes and see where you are.
Nobody likes a soggy bottom...

Protip: If you don't have a cooling rack(like I don't), flip your loaf over so that the bottom can cool without steam forming. This way, you prevent a soggy-bottomed bread!

If you do have a cooling rack, just use that. The idea is to get air flowing all round your bread, so that your crust cools nicely!

Let cool completely before cutting. I know that the temptation is horrifically great, but you must resist! Resist until it's, at least, room temperature. The bubbles that your yeast worked so hard to form are setting now, and if you cut while too hot, the bubbles will collapse and you'll have squishy, tragically soggy, no-good-for-spreading-butter-on bread. I ended up setting mine on my kitchen table, upside down, for about 20 minutes before I cracked.


Check out that gorgeous-ness! That's a beautiful, fine-bubble! You'll want those fine bubbles in that bread, as a sign that you've done your right job in your first initial punching. The bubbles that rise first are big and uneven, and when  you've punched them down for the second proofing, they'll become more small and uniform. You see these small, uniform bubbles in cakes, too!

*sniff-sniff*
This bread is delicious on its own, just with  butter, or as toast spread with some delicious rose petal jam. You can use this bread for anything, really, that you would use normal store-bought bread. Sandwiches? Sure. Toast? Of course. A light snack? Absolutely!

I cannot stress enough that eating healthy is not about starving yourself, but about having full control as to whatever it is that goes into your body. What went into your body when you ate this bread? Well, let's see...basil, flour, salt, a little yeast, and that's essentially it. You didn't add lecithins or poly-sorbinates or whatever-the-fuck goes into commercially-made bread. You made this. You did. You're amazing. Go, you! Now share this with your kids! Or with  your friends! Or use it to make a grilled cheese sandwich! Or hollow it out and fill it with chili! I won't judge.

Nothing like a grilled cheese sandwich and some Sun Tea to make a great lunch...