Our first lesson was yeasted breads. We actually made soft pretzels, but as I explained to the kids, the mixing method is the same.
Before we could begin making any dough however, we still had one “basic” to cover…how to read a recipe! Most importantly, always read it first, and all the way through.
We went over it together…ingredient list, check, steps in order, check, how much it makes, check. Mis en place assembled, check. At this point, my son managed to launch the filled liquid measuring cup across the table so that the child directly opposite him ended up with the first ingredient dripping down his head.
Kitchen rule #2, check.
Freshly mopped and back on track, we mixed warm water with yeast and the sugar and waited for it to bubble.
What is yeast anyway?
I’ve found that the most kid-friendly explanation of yeast is that it is a living thing, the smallest member of the fungi family. The powder in the little packet is just dehydrated yeast. I guess you could say it is asleep. To wake it up and help it grow we need to give it warmth, moisture and food. Thus the warm, (but not hot!), water and sugar. The yeast eats the sugar and then, like anyone who may have eaten a big meal, burps. The bubbles of carbon dioxide on the surface of the water are like yeast burps. The kids find this funny. Some children might go so far as to equate the burping with another way of expelling gas. This generally brings the house down.
The yeast will continue to feed off the flour in the bread dough. This cycle of eating and burping and eating and burping, called fermentation, is what eventually leavens the bread.
The next step in making a yeasted bread dough is to add the salt and perhaps fat, in this case melted butter.
The kids took turns adding flour, about a cup at a time until the dough became too stiff to stir with a spoon. At this point we turned the shaggy dough out onto my floured kitchen table and began kneading it, adding only enough flour from the table to keep the dough from sticking.
Why do we have to knead the dough?
Bread dough needs to be elastic in order to catch the gases created by the yeast, stretching to make space for the rapidly increasing bubbles, almost like a balloon filling with air. Without this elasticity the finished bread would be crumbly rather than chewy, and unpleasantly heavy.
Each child took a turn at grabbing the far edge of the dough, pulling it toward them and folding it over onto itself, then pressing it forward and away before turning the dough a quarter of the way and repeating.
This action of kneading creates elasticity by knitting together two proteins contained in wheat flour. This is kinda upper sciencey for young kids, but when the proteins gliadin and glutenin are combined with water and physically manipulated, they form a network of molecules called gluten. As the dough is kneaded the gluten gets stronger. This is what gives bread its structure.
When the dough is sufficiently kneaded you should be able to perform a windowpane test.
“A what?” you say. Well let me tell you how to do it! Take a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and hold it, with both hands, between your thumb and last two fingers on the bottom, and between your first and second fingers on the top. Then just gently spread your fingers apart, stretching the dough out, like you’re making a Barbie-sized pizza. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane without tearing it, you’re done kneading. If it rips really easily before you can extend your fingers then knead it a bit longer.
We held our sample of windowpaned dough up to the light of an actual window so we could see the web-like gluten strands.
The kids enjoyed the kneading process and especially the soft, smooth feel of the finished dough. It’s especially fun to see what they think it feels like. I like to say that it feels like an earlobe.
We placed the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and left it in a warm spot to rise for about 50 minutes. Lunch break!
Upon checking the dough we saw that it had doubled in size, and if we pushed a finger into it, the dough did not spring back, but an indentation remained. We pulled back a bit of it to again see the glutenny webbing and pockets of carbon dioxide from the yeasty burps.
We knew we were ready for shaping.
We deflated the dough and divided it into 8 equal parts.
As we stretched the soft dough we made sure not to rip it too much and destroy that network of gluten we just worked our muscles for.
Each kid started in the center of their piece of dough and gently rolled it under their palms, back and forth while slowly working their hands apart. Eventually they ended up with long, dough snakes. Yes, some were very curvy or misshapen snakes, but I reminded them that this would make their finished pretzels wonderfully different and unique. Like snowflakes! This seemed to calm the more perfectionist members of the group.
To make our pretzel shapes, we each took our dough snake and made a U. We then crossed the ends and brought them down to the bottom of the U, pinching each end into place.
This is where pretzel-making deviates from other yeasted breads. Usually you would allow another rising period for shaped dough, generally until it’s 1 1/2 times the size and an indentation remains in the dough where lightly pressed. With pretzels, as with bagels, you don’t want more volume. Additionally, you want a more chewy texture to the crust. This is achieved by submerging the pretzels in boiling water. This kills the yeast immediately and sets the outside crust.
The kids were woefully in need of a break at this point so I sent them outside to run while I performed this step.
After all the pretzels were back on oiled sheet pans I had each child brush theirs with egg wash. They also sprinkled them with kosher salt.
After about 14 minutes in the oven you’ll have:
The inflatable dolphin is totally optional.
The following recipe is adapted slightly from Alton Brown
1 ½ c warm water
1 T sugar
2 t kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4 ½ c bread flour
2 oz unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil, for pan
10 c water
⅔ c baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T water
kosher or pretzel salt
Combine the water and sugar in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the salt and butter. Add 3 cups of the flour and mix until combined. Place the rest of the flour on a board and knead into dough as necessary. Knead for another 6 to 7 minutes or until the dough is smooth. Place dough into an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.
In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24 inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.
Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.