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Spring can come and go in a day in the desert.  This year it’s lasting.  60s one day, 40s the next.  Sun one day, freezing wind the next day, snow after that.  I’m ready for summer, but I can’t deny this is a beautiful year. And just about perfect weather for making bread.

 The Best Cheddar Cheese Bread in the World

No exaggeration.  Even people who look at homemade bread as “Yeah, it’s bread…” become converts after trying this bread.  It’s simple, and uses four ingredients, plus water.

I made this Friday night, to take to a gathering of writers where our hostess made six or seven different soups.  Everything was warm and friendly and delicious.  This bread is a welcome addition to breakfast (with bacon!) or afternoon snack (tart apples set it off nicely) or with a soup or stew, or any meat course at dinner. And it’s easy!

I first made this in college.  As a listless, uninterested student who frequently stayed home and baked and read novels rather than attending class (an awful lot of the teachers read out of the book – I was convinced I could do that on my own), I had time to bake.

In college my roommate and I moved into the 8plex across the street from the university as soon as it was built.  Four apartments upstairs, four down.  We chose downstairs, one of the two two-bedroom units, and because we didn’t know Reno isn’t the most social town and that we were being strange, we greeted everyone who moved in.  So we knew Leslie and her boyfriend upstairs and their two redheaded children and their big, black, we-don’t-have-a-dog-we-can’t-have-a-dog-in-this-building Labrador.  We met Ramana when he moved in, John and Barbara when they moved in and didn’t talk to anyone because, we thought – correctly, as it turned out – they were dealers.  We met Valerie who decorated with big butterflies and clearly didn’t own a kitten in the no-pets building, and Ray, who didn’t have parrots.  And we all began partying together, despite being very different people.

And I learned to make bread.  This cheese bread was the second I ever attempted and I’ve been making it ever since.  The recipe only started changing the last couple years, when Rick and I moved into the North Valleys.  At 5000+ feet, in very arid desert, the directions are a little different from what I did before, and from whatever was originally called for in a recipe I lost track of years ago.

Ingredients

1 envelope active dry yeast (not rapid rise) or 2 ¼ teaspoons or one nice yeast scoop’s worth

1 ¾ cups very warm water ( ¼ cup + 1 ½ cups)

2 ½ teaspoons salt (I love sea salt for its graininess/size)

4-5 cups unbleached flour

2 cups sharp cheddar, grated (extra sharp cheddar is nice too – I’m very fond of Tillamook)

Vegetable or canola oil to grease the pans and the bowl

Makes one loaf, standard size loaf pan, and one free form round loaf

Into ¼ of the 1 ¾ cups of water in the single bowl needed for this recipe, add 1 envelope instant (not rapid rise) yeast.  If you prefer your yeast in a jar or package, this is the equivalent of 2 ¼ teaspoons.

Sprinkle the yeast over the flour and let sit a couple minutes while you draw your remaining 1 ½ cups of warm water and 2 ½ teaspoons of salt.  I love sea salt, for its slightly larger crystals, but really any salt will do, including those little packets Wendy’s gives out, which I hoard against those weird times that I run out of salt.  (Salt’s one of those things I never expect to run out of.  Vanilla, on the other hand, disappears instantly.)

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Add the salt to the yeast and water when the yeast is mostly or totally dissolved, and stir, then stir in the remaining warm water.  From here I usually add 3 to 3 ½ cups of the flour, rarely more unless it’s pouring rain outside.  This is one of those times our dry, very low humidity desert makes a difference – it’s really easy to add too much flour to yeast doughs.  To me yeast doughs seem very forgiving – you could add more water, but eventually the mix will be off between flour, yeast, salt and water.  Easier to add the flour slowly and judiciously.

That said, the first 3 cups I just dump in and start stirring.  From there I add a handful at a time from the measuring cup (often saying aloud to passing cats or anyone listening which cup of flour I’m on so I don’t lose count).  As soon as the dough is cohesive enough to be lifted out, but still showing large areas of very wet dough (see photo) I use flour already measured in the cup on my pastry board and lift the dough onto it.

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Note

At this point it’s a good idea to soak the bowl you’re using if you’re going to use it for the rising.  This bread rises in an oiled bowl and if you might not want to stop and wash the bowl and your fingers after all that nice kneading.  If the bowl hasn’t been soaking, scrubbing out the instantly dried sticky dough is irritating and takes longer than I want to spend.  If the bowl’s been soaking in very warm water, and is washed and rinsed in the same, the dough has a lovely warm cradle to start rising in.  Some breads benefit from a long slow rise to develop taste – this one tastes just fine with a normal rise, so warming it is just pleasant, neither necessary nor inadvisable.

Dough rises three times.  The first and second in the oiled bowl, covered with cling wrap or a clean tea towel.  When you put the dough in the bowl, turn it so all sides are lightly covered with the oil.  Both rises take roughly 45 minutes in my high desert to probably 90 minutes at lower and/or damper elevations.  After the first rise, lightly flour your fingers and gently press he dough back down, recover and let rise the second time.

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After the second rise, turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead in your grated cheddar cheese.  I like a coarse grating, so the pieces are wide and more than an inch long. I’m probably using about 8 ounces of cheese, or 2 cups or so.  It’s not an exact measurement and not all of the cheese gets kneaded in every time.

Try not to deflate the dough overly before starting to knead in the cheese.  Flatten the dough into a rough circle, sprinkle on the cheese, and start gently kneading until it’s incorporated.  It’s better to have all the cheese within the dough, not showing on the surface, or that cheese will burn or simply leak out and away during baking.  For that reason too I don’t generally sprinkle any on top of the bred.

Separate the dough into two unequal parts.  Two-thirds of the dough is used to free form one loaf for the greased or nonstick bread pan. The smaller piece is formed into a small, round loaf and does nicely in a greased glass pie pan.  Cover with a clean tea towel and allow to rise for another 45 to 60 minutes while the oven preheats to 450.

Bake both loaves for 20 minutes, then remove the smaller loaf, reduce the oven temperature to 350, and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes.  Keep an eye on it – it can quickly overcook.  If either bread becomes too dark during baking, just lay a piece of foil over top – it doesn’t have to be fitted on or anything.  Remove breads from pan and flick or tap the bottoms – they should sound hollow.  Let cool before slicing or they’ll squish and taste cloyingly wet.

Happy baking!

How much flour?                                                                                                                                            In the past I used more flour than I needed to.  Originally from wherever I learned this recipe, it called for 4 to 5 cups of flour.  Now I use 4 in winter and sometimes – but not always – 4 in summer.

Then about two years ago I started leaving just the slightest stickiness to the bread dough.  It’s very pliable, pulls out nicely, relaxes back into itself, and just the tiniest bit is sticky on my fingers.  This is a hearty bread, not light as a feather, but the taste and texture both improved when I stopped kneading in bread just before it would stop accepting more flour.

Note                                                                                                                                                        Sometimes when I’m kneading the dough I absolutely don’t care that it’s sticking to my fingers, sometimes enough to make small rolls with if I were insane enough to want to stop and do that.  Other times I can’t stand having it sticking to me.  If it starts to bother you while you’re kneading, let the dough rest while you wash your hands off, dry them thoroughly (so you’re not adding more water to the dough) and re-flour your hands and restart your kneading.  Yeast bread is far more forgiving that most people think.  It won’t care.

Note on kneading                                                                                                                                    Bread machines apparently have different functions.  I’ve never used one but I think they can be used for nothing more than the kneading.  Alternately, I have a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook and could let it patiently knead the dough for 10 minutes if so inclined.

I’m not so inclined.  Kneading by hand puts me in touch with the dough.  I can feel how warm it is, how sticky or dry (dry would be bad – it’s impossible to take the flour out again and I don’t think adding liquid would work because again, it changes the ratio of ingredients).  I can feel how well the dough responds, how bouncy it is, how much life.  I’m very impatient in just about everything, so I’ve learned over the years that when recipes say “Knead for 10 minutes,” it’s safe in most instances to knead for four and go on your merry way.  This bread I usually give 4 to 6 minutes depending on how it feels and how I feel and I have never had this bread fail.

One last note on kneading                                                                                                                Because I write – a lot – every day, my hands from handwriting and keyboarding are sore and tired.  Probably a doctor would give me a diagnosis of some dreadful sounding syndrome that really means I just use them way, way too much. Pressure helps, warmth does too, and though mostly my hands wish I’d just stop using them and leave them alone?  Kneading feels glorious.  The warmth of the dough, the repetitive movement, the slow stretching and scrunching and folding under my fingers can make a bad hand day improve exponentially.  Absolutely can’t guarantee anyone else will have that reaction, but if you do have hand pain, explained or otherwise, give kneading a go – you might be pleasantly surprised. Plus though it might be tiring at first, all those farm wives in old pictures had nicely developed arms and shoulders and they didn’t have bread machines.  Just a thought.

At altitude this takes 45-60 minutes to rise, not 90.  Even in dead of winter as long as there’s sun (or indoor heating…) and in summer?  Definitely.

Strangely, I only have one not-so-good photo of the finished small loaf and none of the pan loaf. Guess I’ll just have to make it again…

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