In knead of some culinary therapy?

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One thing I am not is a baker. In my mind, when it comes to cooking, you’re either a cook or a baker. Rarely do you meet those who do both and do them well. I’ve made my share of cookies, breads, homemade cakes, plenty of pies, some tarts and such, but the trouble with baking are the ingredients: butter, flour and sugar. I have had enough of all three of those ingredients to last me a lifetime. I’d rather work with chicken!

So okay, I’ve confessed I’m no baker. I will tell you there are times though, when a loaf of homemade bread just cannot be beat. And making bread by hand is just plain pleasurable and even a little therapeutic! Feeling the dough in your hands, letting it rise, punching it down and doing it all over again ... it can be fun, especially when you get snowed in and a baking project like a loaf of bread is just the ticket.

I’ve noticed through the years that my bread baking skills have gotten a little better from some specific troubleshooting. If you’ve gone through all the time and trouble to make bread from scratch, you want to make sure it’s going to work! Here are five hints for making a lovely loaf:

1) Fresh Yeast. All of us have an envelope or two hanging out in the back of our cupboards. Dump it and start over. You can test it for freshness by proofing it: sprinkle it on some warm water (about 110 degrees ideally), mixed with a little sugar (this feeds the yeast). You will see bubbling in a few minutes, which indicates that it is active. If you don’t, it’s isn’t, throw it out! Another way to determine freshness is smell: if it smells “yeasty,” you’re good. If it smells like alcohol, it’s way past it’s prime ... out it goes!

2) Knead Well. Don’t be gentle! This is the place to let it all hang out. Remember, the pulling and punching and folding over action you are using is what is developing the gluten — this is essential for a tender loaf.

3) Warm Place. When it’s time to rise, make sure you place your dough in a nice warm spot. I use the top of my fridge with plastic wrap over the top and a clean tea towel over that (so it won’t stick to the dough).

4) Punch Down. After the initial rising, you need to punch it down to release the big bubbles of carbon dioxide. Punching it down makes those big bubbles turn into little bubbles so you can have a more even rise the second time around.

5) Rest Time. After the second kneading, it’s tempting to want to slam the bread into the loaf pan and get baking. If you let the dough rest for 5 to 10 minutes, the gluten relaxes, resulting in a dough that is easier to shape and a bread that is a little more tender.

That doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? Now go get yourself some good whole-wheat flour, fresh yeast and bake some bread. Think of it as culinary therapy!