Oooh, I made my title sound like a too-good-to-be-true infomercial. But this really can be done, and I'm living proof. I can be a, let's say, casual homemaker. I love baking, but I don't care to do it on someone elses schedule. To know you have to go through the process, including daunting clean up, three times a day, seven days a week, for eight people (well, less for lunch, but you get the idea), can turn just about anyone off to cooking. So, in order to make me feel better about myself, I decided to give up store bought bread and make my own bread. We go through 10 loaves a week, which means that I make bread at least five days a week (I give a fair amount of it away too). If you are a stay-at-home mom, or a work-at-home mom, it's really easy to do (although people seem to have the mistaken idea that working with yeast bread is hard). It doesn't take a lot of active time, but it does take someone to be around the house for several hours. Consider yourself warned, though - once you move to homemade bread, you'll never want to go back to store-bought bread. My kids complain mightily if we ever run out of homemade bread. This is an easy, basic recipe that will make a great-tasting white bread that works for sandwiches, toast, or snacking. Now one last caution about homemade bread, before I give you the recipe and instructions: it's a very finicky thing, the dough. Now, the end product nearly always tastes the same, but the dough and the appearance of the loaves vary quite a lot from batch to batch. So, sometimes you have a perfectly rounded loaf, sometimes it'll be flatter. Sometimes your dough ball will be satiny smooth, other times it'll be stickier. Yeast dough takes on a life of its own, which makes it a fantastic "science experiment" to share with your kids.
Next, grab an apron. You'll feel like the real deal with it on, and you'll save yourself from any flour spills. Right now I'm sporting my Feliz Navidad (made by my mother-in-law) apron, but usually I'm a sucker for a pretty, frilly vintage apron
Okay, now on to the actual baking work. First you must warm 2 1/4 cups water to 110 to 120 degrees. I just do this in the microwave and then use my candy thermometer to check it. This is crucial because if the water is not warm enough it won't activate the yeast, but if it's too hot it'll kill it. When the temperature is right, pour the water into your mixing bowl.
Now we're ready for the rest of the ingredients. Add 3 Tablespoons sugar, 1 Tablespoon salt, 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil (canola oil will work too), and 3 cups flour (I usually regular white flour). Stir until combined. Then add 3 to 3 1/4 cups more flour gradually, until the mixture forms a soft dough. I have a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook, so I let it do the kneading for me. I set the timer for six minutes and I wash the leftover dishes while it kneads (I have the Artisan mixer, so this is a lot of dough for it to handle and it has a tendency to "travel" a bit while kneading, and sometimes the dough will try to climb up the hook, so I keep an eye on it the whole time - with the 6 or 7 qt KitchenAid, you could probably walk away). If you do not have a dough hook or heavy duty mixer, you need to take the dough out and knead it by hand for eight to ten minutes on a lightly floured surface.
Now, there are all sorts of ways that you could let your bread rise, but the easiest way I've found is to preheat my oven to its lowest setting (which, for me, is 170 degrees) and then crack the oven a few inches. Grease a large bowl with cooking spray, put the rounded dough ball into the bowl, spray the top lightly with cooking spray, and lay a lightweight towel gently over the top. I put mine right on top of the stove for its rising cycle. The time it takes for the bread to double can vary quite a bit. On a humid day, it's closer to an hour, but on a very dry day it can take twice as long. I set my timer for an hour and then check it. Once it's doubled, punch the dough in the center and then flip it out of the bowl onto a clean counter. Divide it in half and gently shape it into a log shape with the seam on the bottom.
Lay your two logs into two loaf pans sprayed with cooking spray, lightly spray the top, and cover with the same light towel. This rising cycle is even more variable than the first, in my opinion. It might take as little as 30 minutes, or as long as an hour. You want to see the loaves double in size. Once that happens, close your oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Remove the towel and pop into the middle shelf of your oven, side by side. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
Voila - two leaves of gorgeous, tasty, homemade white bread. As an added bonus, your home will smell absolutely wonderful throughout the baking process. I let the bread cool completely (which takes several hours) and then wrap in plastic wrap. Day-old bread is easier to cut, and tastes just as delicious as same-day bread, so we usually are baking one day ahead. The bread is preservative free, but it still lasts, wrapped, for five or six days.