From there on, when you first assemble the ingredients, the dance begins. It is one that should be rehearsed a few times, probably, but I know that it can be done with astonishing if somewhat frenzied smoothness the first time.
First scald the milk. Then add the sugar, salt, and shortening, and let the whole cool until it is lukewarm. Then add the yeast, which has been softened in the tepid water.
Start stirring in the flour, mixing it slowly and thoroughly. When the dough is stiff enough to be handled easily, turn it out onto a lightly floured board or tabletop, and knead it until it is smooth and satiny.
Kneading bread means pressing it rhythmically with the heel and fingers of each hand, in a gentle rocking movement, turning the dough over on itself with each push, folding it lightly, pushing, pressing. It is a calming, musical rhythm. In 8 or 10 minutes, when the dough looks and feels as smooth as silk, you can stop.
Then shape the kneaded dough into a smooth ball, and place it in a bowl that has been lightly greased. [Fresh unsalted butter or virgin peanut oil I like best, whenever I indicate grease or fat. But according to the uses of the bread, anything good can be used, from bacon drippings to goose-schmaltz.] Brush the surface fleetingly with melted fat, cover with a lid or a heavy cloth, and let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk. Overnight is easiest. If you press the dough gently with your finger and a hole stays there, it is light enough.
Punch with your folded fist into the soft white mound, down as far as you can go. Then fold the edges into the hole you have made, turn the ball smooth side up, and cover and let it rise again.
When it is light enough to hold the impression of your finger, punch into it again. Then divide the dough into four even parts with a sharp knife, and round each part lightly into a smooth ball. Cover them well, and let stay tranquil for about fifteen minutes.
Mold each one, then, into a loaf, by flattening it, and folding and stretching and rolling and stretching and folding until it will fit lightly into a greased pan, with the last seam on the bottom and a firm smooth top where it should be. [A temporarily retired lieutenant-colonel with jitters calmed himself by baking for his friends, and evolved a flattish tough wonderful loaf we all called Old Testament, made of stone-ground flours. He put about three of them onto a big cookie sheet. They were truly Biblical, and made clearer the significance of “breaking bread.”]
Brush the tops with melted fat, and let rise in a warm place until they have doubled in bulk. And then bake in a moderately hot oven (400 to 423°) for 40 to 45 minutes.
When the loaves are golden, slip them from their pans onto racks of any kind, to cool.
© 1944 MFK Fisher estate. All rights reserved.