Friday, December 31, 2004

Bread and Chickens

Eggs in Bread

Another week, another batch of bread. The last batch, four loaves lasted a week. There is a heel left in the bread drawer. If I don’t use it for bread crumbs or croutons it will go to chicken food or as a treat for the bunnies.

I keep a plastic dish pan under the kitchen sink for chicken scraps. Chickens will eat any sort of food than people eat, but they are not so fussy. They will eat tough stems of broccoli, dried up bread, old brown lettuce, table scraps, anything that is usually discarded. This time of year, when they are stuck inside because of cold weather, those scraps help relieve their boredom as well as giving them access to nutrients that can’t be found in their scratch feed and layer mash. In warmer weather the chickens will receive piles of weeds and garden waste, eating it, pooping on it, and trampling it into a sort of pre-compost. When I eventually clean out their pen, the proceeds feed my awesome compost pile.

I love the intrinsic economy of keeping chickens. Throwing out unwanted food is so wasteful, but putting food that is still edible on an outdoor compost pile invites rats, raccoons, and other varmints into the yard. The chickens are so thorough that when they are through with foodstuff there is nothing edible left. If you give them watermelon rind that the people are done eating, they will peck out the white part of the rind until there is only the most delicate dark green shell left. Their manure is strong enough to jumpstart the composting process even if the weather is cold and I don’t have time to “turn” the pile.

It is cheaper to feed chickens this way, too, although my flock of 20 birds is a little large for our household. I think that 2 or 3 birds per person in a household where everyone ate at home most of the time would be ideal for converting table scraps into eggs. Right now my birds are about 18 months old and finishing their first molt. I have been getting 13 or 14 eggs a day since just before Christmas. I sell eggs for $2.00 a dozen by putting up a sign on the road and selling to whoever stops by.

This brings me back to the bread recipe:

2 tablespoons dry yeast dissolved in
½ cup warm water with a pinch of sugar
3 cups warm water
¼ cup shortening
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 to 4 eggs (optional)

Dissolve yeast in water. Combine yeast, water, sugar, salt, shortening, and eggs. Add 3 cups of flour, then stir 200 times without reversing direction. Let sit 20 minutes.

Add flour one cup at a time until dough is kneadable. Do this slowly; the flour needs time to absorb water and if you add too much your bread will be dry. Knead the bread for 10 minutes, and then let it rise for an hour.

Shape the dough into four loaves and let rise until they are large. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Test one loaf with a probe-type thermometer; done is 190 degrees in the middle of a loaf that was in the middle of the oven. Turn out of the pans to cool.

You will notice that I have edited the recipe to add pinch of sugar while the yeast dissolves. I never noticed that I do this until I tried to follow my own recipe.

The number of eggs is quite variable. I often use no eggs. Sometimes I cut back to 2 cups of water and use as much as six eggs. This makes a dough that is like bagel dough or sweet bread dough if you add a little more sugar.

When the hens are laying I always get a few eggs that are not good enough to sell. They may have cracks or be too large or oddly shaped to fit in the cartons. These eggs are for home use, on the door of the fridge, and I use more or less in the bread depending on how many I have. Today I will use at least two and this will help the yeast to rise in this cold house

I mix my bread in a large (14 inch diameter) stoneware bowl. I have used a 32 cup Tupperware mixing bowl for this recipe but the stoneware is heavy enough that I can mix the dough and knead it in the bowl. I use a long handled wooden spoon for mixing and for measuring the shortening, which doesn’t need to be measured precisely. A ¼ cup size dollop from the mixing spoon is fine.

The directive to “200 times without reversing direction. Let sit 20 minutes.” might be the most mysterious part of the recipe. During this time the flour is absorbing water and forming long strands of protein called gluten. Later we will want this gluten since it will stretch and contain the bubbles of carbon dioxide produced by the yeast. More bubbles mean lighter bread. Stirring back and forth would break up the strands of yeast. (At least that is what I was taught but as I write these words they look like a theory begging to be proved or disproved.)

Letting the dough sit for 20 minutes gives the flour time to thoroughly absorb the liquid and makes it harder to add too much flour in the final phase of the recipe. This is easily observed; after the rest the batter looks thicker and gloppier.

When my kids were little they loved to help with making bread. I let them measure the ingredients and help me count to 200 as we stirred. When I put the dough up to rest before kneading I would often wait quite a long time to add the rest of the flour and then knead the dough as they were only in the way during the kneading process. I would “sneak” a little kneading here and there while they were diverted with other things but the bread didn’t suffer. They were invited back after the dough rose and they would happily shape dough into two half-size loaf pans.

Next: Kneading

My stoneware bread bowl came from Ransbottom Pottery.

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