Bread is a simple thing. Flour, water, yeast. Nothing else is really necessary to create a loaf.
Just flour, water, and yeast would make for a loaf of bread that tastes like shit though. My loaf is better. It contains salt and sugar and oil. It's not much more complicated, but it's just right. I've been eating this bread since I was a child. For many years, my mother made all of our family's bread, approaching the long process of bread making with a joy I've never quite been able to replicate. The mixing, kneading, rising, kneading, rising, baking rhythm of bread making can be therapeutic in nature, but I have never been able to fit it into my life on a regular basis.
(I'm not going to share my mother's recipe here, even though it is the perfect bread recipe. You can get your hands on it yourself if you pick up a copy of Edna Stabler's Food That Really Schmecks. You should probably have this cookbook in your kitchen anyway.)
A few years ago, I got my hands on a gently used bread machine. My mother-in-law rarely used it and was happy to pass it on to me to try out. I used it a few times, but quickly discovered that the bread it made was far inferior to my mother's recipe, enough so that I had little desire to make it. If I was going to make bread, it was going to be the good stuff. The bread that came out of the machine was soft inside, but the crust it made was too thick, too crunchy. And, there was something not quite right about the recipes that came with the machine, something just slightly off flavour-wise.
A few months back, I discovered a compromise which led to the perfect loaf of bread in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of effort. I took Edna's bread recipe and modified it for a bread machine. Knowing I don't like the way bread comes out of the machine, I began using the dough setting and allowing the bread to be mixed and go through the first rise in the perfect conditions of the bread machine. Then, I remove it from the machine, separate it into loaves, let it rise a second time, and bake it in my own oven.
Perfect loaves every time.
I'm going to share my modified recipe, but you don't have to use it to make this technique work for you. If you have a favourite bread recipe that you don't use often because the whole process is just too involved for you, dust off your bread maker or find an inexpensive one (you can find one for under $100 new, or check out your local thrift stores) and modify your recipe by adding the liquid to the machine first, then the flour, then the other dry ingredients (salt, sugar, etc.) and, finally, the yeast. Make sure you're using bread machine yeast or quick rising yeast instead of traditional yeast and always add the yeast last. You don't want it to get wet too early in the process.
Adapted for a bread machine from Food That Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler
Check your bread machine capacity. This recipe makes 2 loaves, approximately a pound each.
Load your bread machine in the following order:
1.5 cups lukewarm water
1/4 cup oil (I use vegetable, but any will work)
4.5 cups flour (of any type. I use whole wheat most often, but will also do a mix of whole wheat, white, or oatmeal. Experiment and try potato flour, or maybe some cooked quinoa for 1 of the 4.5 cups.)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp quick rise yeast
Set your bread machine to the dough setting and let it work its magic. Mine takes an hour and a half to mix and rise.
When finished, remove it from the bread maker and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead a few times to work out any major air pockets, but avoid kneading too much.
Split the dough into two loaves or form into one large loaf. Place in greased loaf pans or on a cookie sheet for a more rustic looking loaf.
Alternatively, play around with the dough a little bit, like I've done here. Split the dough into three instead of two and form into three long strands of dough. Braid, just as you would hair, tucking in the ends carefully when you've finished. Place on a cookie sheet.
Now, you want to place your dough in a warm place to rise. I'm fortunate to have a stove that has a 'proof' setting. It is specifically designed to heat the oven to just the temperature required to rise bread perfectly. If you don't have such a setting on your oven, look for a warm place in your house. On top of the fridge often works well since heat rises. If you have no other options, simply placing your dough on your counter will work just a well too. It will just take a little longer. Cover with a tea towel and wait about an hour, or until your dough has at least doubled in size.
Remove from the oven if you used it to rise, and preheat to 400*. Bake the bread for 20 minutes and beautifully golden.
Hard as it may be, resist the temptation to slice it right away as soon as it comes out of the oven. If you wait, it will slice nicely. If you cut right away, the bread will be too soft and warm and will both flatten and tear on the sides making slices that are far from pretty.
(I have failed to resist the temptation many many times. There's nothing really wrong with slicing right away, especially if you love the soft warmth of bread seconds out of the oven.)