Making bread is easy. If someone has shown you the way and you have pretty much a full day to dedicate to it. Plus the smell of baking bread is pretty much one of the most delightful smells to fill a home with. I learned to make bread from my grandmother, mostly because she had arthritis in her hands so badly that she couldn't knead the dough properly anymore and needed some assistance from a young person with good strong hands. I will try and explain the best method for kneading dough, remember when you are done kneading the dough shouldn't be sticky anymore, it should have a really nice and smooth outer layer that isn't flaky. I'm also going to explain how I roll up my dough into the loaf shape because I am convinced that this method makes a much nicer finished loaf when it's all said and done. Some people just kind of push the dough into a loaf shape and drop it in the pan, I think that is lazy, seriously after you've spent over two hours with a dough why would you drop the [dough] ball then? So best of luck with your bread making. Read instructions carefully, and in full before you get started and you pretty nearly can't go wrong. OH I nearly forgot, this is a recipe for white bread, made with white all purpose or bread flour, this recipe isn't the right recipe to use if you want to make brown bread, with whole wheat flour. I'll get around to putting up other bread recipes later if that is what you are interested in.
5 3/4 - 6 1/2 cups flour (sifted is best if you happen to have a flour sifter, but it really wont make too much of a difference)
1 heaping tablespoon of dry active yeast (1 package of bread machine yeast will also work)
2 1/4 cups milk or buttermilk (if using milk, 2% is best, fat helps keep the bread moist)
1 tablespoon butter (if you insist on it; margarine, lard, shortening also work. I prefer butter)
1 teaspoons salt*
*I must confess that I almost never measure salt, you might also be a person who doesn't measure salt, I don't do it because I just usually find that adding significantly less salt to a recipe tends to give the same results, but with less sodium per serving. I have already used a reduced measurement of salt in this recipe compared to most. So using less salt than 1 teaspoon could result in blander bread.)
In a large mixing bowl combine 2 1/2 cups of the sifted flour and the yeast and set aside for the moment. In a double boiler or in a stainless steel mixing bowl over a sauce pan with boiling water in it, combine the milk, sugar, butter and salt and heat gently until the butter is melted and the mixture feels warm to the touch. NOT hot to the touch, otherwise you run the risk of killing the yeast cells and then the bread wont rise. If you happen to overheat the mixture don't panic just set it aside off the heat for a few minutes and let it come back down in temperature.
When the milk mixture is warmed add it to the large bowl with the flour mixture and beat on high speed for about 3 minutes. I use my stand mixture for this and only turn it about to about the 6th speed, or on my hand beaters I use the fastest setting, I'm a speed demon! Now, fine points here, My stand mixer has attachments that are shaped to constantly scrape the batter back down into the main bowl, which is awesome; Should you not have such a luxury, I suggest nearly constantly scraping the sides of your bowl to push the batter back down. This will ensure that the yeast is evenly distributed, which in turn will ensure that your final loaf rises and bakes evenly. Using an electric beating method isn't 100% required to make good white bread, my grandmother certainly did not use it with her recipe, but I have found that this quick little step really helps give some lift to the bread during the rising process. Next, using a sturdy [I have broken some. . . ] wooden spoon stir in as much of the remaining flour (about 4 1/2 remember?) as you can.
This amount can vary DRASTICALLY, depending on nearly anything from the weather, humidity, your relative elevation, how careful of a measure-er you are, the type of flour used, or something that only the flour has noticed. Flour is worse than anyone's boyfriend/girlfriend for being finicky, I promise you. Also it is normal to not get to stir in all of this flour measurement, we still need to knead! Which will incorporate more flour into the dough.
Once you have stirred in as much of the flour as you can, it's time to knead! Kneading is a slightly tedious process, it should take you at least 8 minutes of kneading before your dough is ready. Kneading dough is also pretty easy if you know the idea, my method involved using both hands together as a single kneading unit, all you really need to do is pull the dough gently on the side opposite you, farther away from you, turn it back over on top of itself and push the dough down into itself with the "heel" of your hand, the meaty bit right above your wrist. Then just repeat this process over and over again, lightly sprinkling more flour on the dough and turning it as you go, make sure the work surface you are using is kept pretty evenly floured. Keep it up until the dough ball is smooth and elastic. It really will look pretty darn smooth and even, and be very elastic (will try and pull back to its original shape when stretched) when it is ready. Shape your ready dough into a ball and lightly oil the outside with canola/vegetable/olive, and place it back in the flour bowl, which should be reasonably clean after you dumped the dough onto the kneading surface. Cover the bowl with a clean tea or kitchen towel, and set it in a warm, draft free place to rise until roughly double in size. This can take between 45-60 minutes, try not to leave it for too long past the hour mark to prevent the dough from "over-proofing
After the dough has finished rising this time, make a fist and punch the center of your dough ball down and turn the dough ball out into a floured surface and divide the dough into two equal portions, or if you have a jumbo loaf pan you can leave it in one. Cover the dough again and let it rest for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes shape each loaf by rolling out the dough as flat as you can, it wont be very large because of how elastic the dough is, that's ok. Then roll the dough up tightly so it forms a loaf and drop it into your greased loaf pan with the seam side on the bottom. Gently do some finishing shaping so it looks pretty. Cover again and let it rise for about 30 minutes. Now it's time to get the oven on! Preheat it to 375C. Bake for about 35-40 minutes before checking on it, give it a tap on top and it should sound sort of hollow when it is done. If your dough crust is starting to get to dark you can either brush some milk on it to keep it from toasting more, or loosely cover it with foil until it is done. Once it is finished baking, transfer loaf to a cooling rack to cool completely.
If you plan to eat it now, enjoy! If you want to freeze it, as soon as the loaf is completely cool, wrap it up in several layers of plastic wrap, and then a large ziplock bag and it will keep in the freezer for about a month before it starts to suffer too much.
Fresh bread will only last a couple of days when kept on the counter. Bread shouldn't be stored in a fridge. The fridge will dry the bread out completely.