I learned to knead from my mother. I remember her beckoning me over one day and showing me how she worked a mass of bread dough back and forth across the counter. She put my hands on the dough, explained her method: push the dough forward with the heel of one hand, pull it back with the other hand. Push right, pull left. Push right, pull left. I practiced alongside her, pushing and pulling the dough, until the movement worked its way into my muscles and became a reflex.
It’s a funny memory, because when I was first teaching myself to cook, I always imitated my father first. He’s an extravagantly creative cook, the kind of cook who barely ever glances at a recipe. He’s great at making kitchen-sink stews, pulling out the entire contents of the crisper drawer and the spice cupboard and having his way with all of it. I’m my father’s daughter in so many ways, and fundamentally my cooking temperament matches his. I have limited patience for recipes and rules, and an overwhelming tendency to tinker and embellish. For a long time I stuck stubbornly to that, insisting that it was the way I was made.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my mother’s way of cooking has value for me too. She’s more deliberate in the kitchen, more of a planner. She has a drawer of recipes that she consults regularly, and keeps a stable of favorites in heavy rotation. Where my dad is creative, she’s curious; she’ll seek out an existing recipe to learn the techniques, then adapt it to what she likes and has on hand. She also bakes, which my father doesn’t really do, because the precision and deliberateness required come more easily to her. Slowing down like this isn’t natural for me, but I think it’s good. I’ve expanded my repertoire of dishes, adding things that require a bit more forethought and deliberateness than a kitchen-sink stew. I’ve realized that repeating recipes, and learning a few standbys to make repeatedly without thinking, are things to celebrate rather than hang my head over. Particularly as a blogger, paying attention to the way my mother uses recipes has helped me improve my own.
Over the years, I’ve learned on my own what a good bread dough feels like–soft, supple, almost fleshy–and how to know when it’s risen enough. But every loaf I’ve baked comes back to that push right, pull left that Mom taught me years ago. Knowing how to knead has grounded me, in a way. So when I went over to my parents’ house the other week to bake with my mother and sister, there was no question I was going to make bread. This was a gorgeous, airy loaf, with a thin crackling crust and a delicately spongy interior–perfect for sopping up soup. I kneaded the dough while Mom watched, and then she helped me braid the dough and sprinkle it with seeds. We bickered over how long to let it rest–it turns out she was right. After all these years, I’m still learning.
Simple Braided Bread (makes 1 loaf)
Adapted slightly from King Arthur Flour
For the starter:
1 cup (8 oz) cool water (about 65º F)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp instant (rapid rise) yeast
For the dough:
1/2 cup (4 oz) cool water (about 65º F), or as needed
2 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, as needed
2 tsp instant (rapid rise) yeast (the remainder of a 1/4 oz packet)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg white + 1 tbsp water
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp poppy seeds
In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), combine 1 cup water, 2 cups flour, and 1/4 tsp yeast. Mix just until a wet dough forms. Cover the bowl loosely with a clean kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for 12-16 hours. The starter will thicken, expand slightly, and develop lots of bubbles.
Add 1/2 cup water to the starter, and mix until smooth. Add 2 cups flour, the remaining yeast, and salt, and mix until a soft, slightly sticky dough forms. The dough should just slightly cling to your fingers, without leaving much residue. If it feels too wet, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, or fit a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. Knead the dough for 5 minutes by hand, or 3 minutes in a mixer, adding just enough flour to keep it from sticking. The dough is ready when it’s smooth but not quite springy.
Lightly grease the mixing bowl (no need to clean it). Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean towel, and allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. Twice during the rising time, pick up the dough, gently fold all four sides into the middle, then flip it over and return it to the bowl.
Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment paper. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into thirds, and roll each portion into a log about 20 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Braid the three pieces of dough, and pinch them together at the ends. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, cover with a clean towel, and let rise at room temperature for 1 hour.
While the dough has its second rise, preheat the oven to 425º F. In a small bowl, whisk egg white and water until combined. In another small bowl, mix together sesame seeds and poppy seeds.
Gently brush the braided dough with the egg white mixture, and sprinkle generously with the seed mixture. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the bread is firm to the touch and golden brown all over. Remove from the oven and transfer the bread to a cooling rack. Let cool for at least 30 minutes (preferably 1 hour) before slicing.