All rise

Henri prepares the staff of life

While much of America spent the first Sunday in February watching television—men in tight trousers kicking and throwing a ball around and piling on top of each other and Madison Avenue ad agencies attempting to outdo and outspend each other—Henri spent the day in a much more civilized fashion. Not to be too disparaging. After all, Henri spent his youth in the Midwest before fleeing for the Big Pomme and the world beyond, and he still has a soft spot in his heart for the unvarnished, including their obsession with sports—though he is genuinely flummoxed by fromage-head hats.

So, as true-blooded Americans everywhere drank beer and soda and ate all manner of dreadful approximations of food—Doritos and bean dip and little brown wieners on toothpicks—Henri was in the kitchen, in apron and chef’s hat, glass of Bordeaux in hand, making bread and listening to the soundtrack from Yentl.

Bread. The staff of life. And also where we get our words “companion” and “company"—in ancient Rome, a companio was one with whom you broke bread, or pan. Henri can think of little better on a winter’s day than homemade bread fresh from the oven, sliced and toasted to a golden brown and slathered with butter and honey. And bread is much easier to make than you might think.

Following is Henri’s basic foolproof bread recipe, with virtually unlimited possibilities for improvisation and personal touches. Substitute whole-grain for white flour—or use half of each. Throw in some herbs—rosemary, oregano or thyme. Use molasses or honey instead of sugar. Cook it on a flat sheet (for French-style loaves) or in a muffin pan (for rolls) instead of in loaf pans. Sprinkle the top with poppy or sesame seeds. Flatten the dough before making the loaves, brush with melted butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and roll tightly to make cinnamon bread.

Henri’s Easy-to-Make Bread—No-Frills Version
Note: Henri prefers to use a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, though he understands purists would scoff at such contrivances, preferring to combine the ingredients in a bowl and knead by hand.

Warm mixing bowl by filling with hot water. Empty and add two and a half cups lukewarm water, into which dissolve yeast using beater attachment. (The yeast will go dormant if the water’s too cold, die if it’s too hot.) Add two tablespoons vegetable oil, two tablespoons sugar and one tablespoon salt. Add three cups flour and beat until smooth. Replace beater with dough hook, add four more cups flour, and knead until dough doesn’t stick to your fingers. (If you’re not using a dough hook, knead by hand on lightly floured flat surface or cookie sheet.)

Remove from mixing bowl and place in a large lightly buttered bowl, cover with clean dry dish towel, and allow to rise until doubled in size—one to three hours. Punch it down, and then let rise again to same size.

Remove from bowl, divide dough in half and shape each to fit into a loaf pan, rolling underside into itself and spanking the top (mechant pain!) to remove air bubbles. Place upside down in lightly oiled loaf pans, then roll back right-side up (this is to lightly coat with oil what will be the crust).

Allow to double in size one more time, and then cook for about 20 minutes in pre-heated oven at 400 degrees, or until tops are golden brown. To see if it’s done all the way through, thump the top with your knuckle. It should sound hollow.

Brush butter or margarine on crust and allow to cool. Slice and enjoy.

While making bread is in fact a five- or six-hour process, only a half-hour or so is spent actually preparing the dough. Much of the time is spent waiting. The colder the day, the longer the staff of life takes to rise, and Henri does confess to sneaking an occasional glance at the Super Bowl and watching Mr. Donovan—and hearing about Sweet Loretta Martin—while his rose.