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Who Needs an Oven? Rice Cooker Yeast Bread

The finished product - rice cooker yeast bread.
When we lived at home in the United States, I made bread on a pretty regular basis. I loved the process, inspired by my mother and Uncle Bob, I would mix and knead, breathing in that wonderful yeasty smell. I would also snarf down in short order the resulting golden brown loaves, butter and jam pooling on the grainy surface.

Since moving to Japan six years ago, I have not had an oven. Yes, I know I can get one, but I don't want to give up the counter space, and I don't want another thing I have to lug with me when we move. But, I do find that I crave homemade bread. Dense, heavy breads made with dark flours that go well with cheese don't really exist here. Oh, they do if I go to a specialty bakery, but I'm relatively lazy. When I want my bread, I don't want to ride the train for an hour and a half to find it's sold out or not what I really wanted.

My friend Hitomi, as she often does, came to the rescue early on with a recipe for green tea bread in the rice cooker. I made it a few times and then got to thinking, why not do a yeast bread? So, I looked to the Tassajara Bread Book for their basic recipe, and then got down to business. It's easy, but a little time-consuming.

Ingredients*

1.5  cups lukewarm water (85 to 105 degrees)
3/4  Tbsp. dry yeast (1 packages)
2 Tbsp. sweetener (honey, molasses, or brown sugar)
2  cups whole-wheat flour (substitute 1 or more cups unbleached white flour if desired)
2  tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. and 2 tsp. oil or butter or margarine*
1.5 cups additional whole-wheat flour
1/2  cup whole-wheat flour for kneading

The sponge, bubbling away.
In a large glass or ceramic bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in the sweetener. Stir in the 2 cups of flour to form a thick batter. Beat well with a spoon (100 strokes). This part of the process is called making the sponge. The name, I believe, comes from the fact that it looks rather spongey. This is a personal theory.

Cover with a towel and let the dough rise for 45 minutes until doubled in size. I usually set mine in the sun or next to the coffee maker when it's still going.

Doubled in size, basking in the sun.
Fold in the salt and the oil. Then fold in the additional 1.5 cups of flour until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Knead on a floured board for about 10 minutes**, using additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Stop when the dough is smooth. (Folding in is a process I learned from Tassajara. Never break up the dough, but rather stir around the edges and fold the dough over on itself. It maintains the integrity of the dough and makes for a better loaf. This is also the time when things like raisins, oatmeal, or whatever would get added to the dough.)

Punch it real good.
After the punching.
Let the dough rise for 50 to 60 minutes, or until doubled in size. Punch it down. (Yup, you really punch it.)

Let the dough rise for another 40 to 50 minutes, or until doubled in size.

Cut the dough in half.
Cut the dough in half, shape into circles, and let rest for ten minutes. (It's traumatic.)

Waiting to rise for the last time.
Place one circle in the lightly oiled rice cooker pan and let it rise for 20 to 25 minutes. I usually put it in the rice cooker with the lid closed. I DO NOT turn on the rice cooker at this time.

Wrap the other circle in wax paper, pop it in a ziploc bag, and set it in the freezer for later.

Turn on the rice cooker and run it for a full cycle. When it beeps that it is done, turn the loaf over and turn on the rice cooker again. When the loaf sounds hollow and is golden brown, it's done.

Just eat it...
*Caveat Alert: I know that baking is essentially chemistry, and that I am meant to carefully and exactly measure out my ingredients each time in order to achieve the desired effect. Well, I don't. I guess, toss things in at random, and hope for the best. I like to think of myself as an inventor, an experimenter, a mad scientist, if you will. The above list is exact, but I sometimes don't measure it perfectly.

**Another Caveat Alert: I knead the dough longer than ten minutes. I enjoy the process, and I find that to achieve that smooth-skinned feel, I need more time.

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