TAKE one peck or two gallons of fine wheat flour, and sift it into a kneading trough, or into a small clean tub, or a large broad earthen pan; and make a deep hole in the middle of the heap of flour, to begin the process by what is called setting a sponge. Have ready half a pint of warm water, which in summer should be only lukewarm, but even in winter it must not be hot or boiling, and stir it well into half a pint of strong fresh yeast; (if the yeast is home-made you must use from three quarters to a whole pint;) then pour it into the hole in the middle of the flour. With a spoon work in the flour round the edges of the liquid, so as to bring in by degrees sufficient flour to form a thin batter, which must be well stirred about, for a minute or two. Then take a handful of flour, and scatter it thinly over the top of this batter, so as to cover it entirely. Lay a warmed cloth over the whole, and set it to rise in a warm place; in winter put it nearer the fire than in summer. When the batter has risen so as to make cracks in the flour on the top, scatter over it three 01 four table-spoonfuls (not more) of fine salt, and begin to form the whole mass into a dough; commencing round the hole containing the batter, and pouring as much soft water as is necessary to make the flour mix with the batter; the water must never be more than lukewarm. When the whole is well mixed, and the original batter which is to give fermentation to the dough is completely incorporated with it, knead it hard, turning it over, pressing it, folding it, and working it thoroughly with your clenched hands for twenty minutes or half an hour; or till it becomes perfectly light and stiff. The goodness of bread depends much on the kneading, which to do well requires strength and practice. When it has been sufficiently worked, form the dough into a lump in the middle of the trough or pan, and scatter a little dry flour thinly over it: then cover it, and set it again in a warm place to undergo a fartner fermentation; for which, if all has been done rightly, about twenty minutes or half an hour will be sufficient.
The oven should be hot by the time the dough has remained twenty minutes in the lump. If it is a brick oven it should be heated by faggets or small light wood, allowed to remain in till burnt down into coals. When the bread is ready, clear out the coals, and sweep and wipe the floor of the oven clean. Introduce nothing wet into the oven, as it may crack the bricks when they are hot. Try the heat of the bottom by throwing in some flour; and if it scorches and burns black, do not venture to put in the bread till the oven has had time to become cooler.
Put the dough on the paste-board, (which must be sprinkled with flour,) and divide it into loaves, forming them of a good shape. Place them in the oven, and close up the door, which you may open once or twice to see how the bread is going on. The loaves will bake in from two hours and a half to three hours, or more, according to their size. When the loaves are done, wrap each in a clean coarse towel, and stand them up on end to cool slowly. It is a good way to have the cloths previously made damp by sprinkling them plentifully with water, and letting them lie awhile rolled up tightly. This will make the crust of the bread less dry and hard. Bread should be kept always wrapped in a cloth, and covered from the air in a box or basket with a close lid. Unless you have other things to bake at the same time, it is not worth while to heat a brick oven for a small quantity of bread. Two or three loaves can be baked very well in a stove, (putting them into square iron pans,) or in a Dutch oven.*
If the bread has been mixed over night (which should never be done in warm weather) and is found, on tasting it, to be sour in the morning, melt a tea-spoonful of pearl-ash in a little milk-warm water, and sprinkle it over the dough; let it set half an hour, and then knead it. This will remove the acidity, and rather improve the bread in lightness. If dough is allowed to freeze it is totally spoiled. All bread that is sour, heavy, or ill-baked is not only unpalatable, but extremely unwholesome, and should never be eaten. These accidents so frequently happen when bread is made at home by careless, unpractised or incompetent persons, that families who live in cities or towns will generally risk less and save more, by obtaining their bread from a professional baker.
If you like a little Indian in your wheat bread, prepare rather a larger quantity of warm water for setting the sponge ; stirring into the water, while it is warming, enough of sifted Indian meal to make it like thin gruel. Warm water that has had bumpkin boiled in it is very good for bread.
Strong fresh yeast from the brewery should always be used in preference to any other. If the yeast is home-made, or not very strong and fresh, double or treble the quantity mentioned in the receipt will be necessary to raise the bread. On the other hand, if too much yeast is put in, the bread will be disagreeably bitter.+
* If you bake bread in a Dutch oven, take off the lid when the loaf is done, and let it remain in the oven uncovered for a quarter of an hour.
+ If you are obliged from its want of strength to put in a large quantity of yeast, mix with it two or three handfuls of bran ; add the warm water to it, and then strain it through a sieve or cloth; or you may correct the bitterness by putting in a few bits of charcoal and then straining it.
You may take off a portion of the dough that has been prepared for bread, make it up into little round cakes or rolls, and bake them for breakfast or tea.