The College Chef’s Handbook: Making bread from scratch in my dorm
“Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves with our names, pronouns, and favorite form of bread.”
It was a Tuesday evening of the second week of school – the end of the first real day after syllabus week. The post-Labor Day shock of work and responsibilities was hitting me as I found myself in the StudLife Scene meeting’s icebreaker circle.
“Wait, can someone do a ‘Making bread in the dorm’ article?” My eyes lit up. If anyone’s going to document making a complex recipe in their dorm kitchen with little to no equipment, it’s going to be me.
Last year, as a freshman, I put my self-taught cooking skills to the test. I experimented with everything from Paws and Go ingredients to baking a Kouign-Amann (a pastry made of layers of caramelized butter, sugar, and dough) for my French cooking class. Especially after returning from studying abroad in France this past May, a slice of freshly baked bread with butter and flaky sea salt was the product of my many summer cooking adventures. Now, after the chaos of move-in, the monotony of syllabus week, and with a pile of Organic Chemistry problems sitting on my desk, I thought, “What better excuse to do so than to make some bread at 4 o’clock on a random Saturday afternoon?”
Inspired by the “favorite form of bread” icebreaker, I made the trip to Schnucks for some bread-making essentials — flour and yeast. With those ingredients on hand, all that is left is a little bit of water, salt, and oil, making for a deceptively, simple recipe. I say deceptively simple because the process of making bread is a long one, consisting of the phases of agitating, kneading, rising, and then finally, baking. So, with my recipe scrawled out on a piece of loose-leaf paper, I got to work.
The recipe I used is one I have made so many times I’ve memorized it as a ratio: 1 cup of water, 1 packet of yeast, and approximately 3 cups of flour. I started by placing one cup of the flour into a bowl with the packet of yeast. I also added a pinch of sugar – a helpful addition to ensure that the yeast rises. The key to good bread is the temperature of the water: It has to be as close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. Once the water was the right temperature, I added it to the bowl with the starting mixture and immediately began to stir.
At this point, the challenge was agitating the yeast without any electric equipment. Usually, yeast agitation is best done by an electric mixer, however, I set my phone timer and painstakingly mixed the base by hand for five minutes. Now, the ratio is “approximately” 3 cups of flour because a different amount will incorporate itself into the forming dough each time. My way of ensuring the right amount of flour is by adding one more cup of flour to the base after agitation, folding the mixture until it is too sticky to be stirred anymore. Then, I poured the final cup of flour onto a clean work surface (in my case, a sheet pan), dumped out the forming dough into the middle of the flour, and incorporated it by beginning to gently knead the dough.
As such, the next part of the recipe is kneading, which, once again, I took on by hand. Using the remaining flour as a coating for the work surface, I stretched the dough along my sheet pan, working in as much flour as possible, folding the dough in half, and repeating the process several times. After kneading for almost 10 minutes, the dough finally reached the right texture: smooth and uniform on the outside, with an elasticity such that when the dough is pinched, it holds its shape. Luckily, after this step, the rest of the recipe became a waiting game. Brushing the bowl and dough with olive oil, I left the bread to rise for an hour.
After one hour, it becomes clear if the yeast was rising correctly, which, to my relief, it did. Dividing the dough in half, I decided to go for the classic baguette-shape, as it is the easiest to bake. I took each half of the dough, flattened it into a rectangle on the floured sheet pan, and brought the edges of each rectangle together, forming a loaf shape. I rolled each end to taper them to points. Although most recipes add salt during the agitation phase, I find that I have more trouble getting the bread to rise when the salt is added to the dough itself. To fix this, I brushed the outside with a bit of water, and then sprinkled salt on the outside, so that it baked into the crust. Then, I lightly oiled a separate sheet pan, placed both loaves on it, and used a sharp knife to make three slits in the outer layer of the loaves for that classic baguette look.
Another hour and preheated oven later, the loaves were finally ready to be baked (375 F for 20-25 minutes). During this time, I sat down to eat dinner with my suitemates, as bread-making had so far taken almost two and a half hours. In my distracted state, I forgot to set a timer for the bread. When I had finally remembered, my three suitemates and I sprinted down the hall towards the kitchen, expecting the worst. To my surprise, the bread was still intact and not a charred mess. In fact, it was perfectly cooked with a well-formed crust on the outside. I sliced the two loaves up for my suite and a couple friends who had dropped by to investigate my bread-making experiment. One suitemate had a bit of butter leftover from the week — the perfect addition to the warm, fresh bread, which we ate straight from the cutting board.
After eating the bread straight from the cutting board in an eighth of the time it took me to make it with my friends, I could not have spent that cloudy Saturday afternoon in a better way. The adjustment to sophomore year was made just a little easier by adapting one of my summer favorites into what I hope to be a school year staple. In this way, making bread in my dorm has reminded me that few recipes are too difficult to adapt to a college lifestyle and a dorm kitchen, with a bit of creativity. To me, continuing to experiment with recipes here on campus is a worthy endeavor, and a satisfying challenge I intend to document for the rest of the year, just as long as I remember to set my timer.