If it’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to you. In a pinch you buy some mass-market play-dough. The kid loves it for 15 minutes, mixes the colors up until it’s an unappetizing shade of brown, and you pop it back into the container only for it to clutter up your cabinet and dry out in a few months. If you are like me, you’ve pinned more homemade play-dough recipes than you care to admit, and have made a grand total of zero of them. This is my permission to you to let go of the guilt. Just Let. It. Go! There’s a better way.
Our littlest is blessed to go to a darling Waldorf nursery and most days they spend some time bread baking. I often find the teacher mixing the flour and kneading dough first thing in the morning. Then calmly sprinkling little piles of flour on the shared working table as kids come scrambling to get their handful of dough. The kids knead, play, and chatter. When they are done, the dough is piled back up, set aside to rise, and then cooked for that day’s meal.
Watching this ritual got me thinking about how silly play-dough is. Why do we need a separate dough for play? Why not just use the real stuff and cook it? (Or compost any bits that get dirty?) This, to me, is the ultimate zero waste play-dough.
In this spirit, I began engaging my littles in my bread-baking efforts. In the past I’ve used lots of techniques for bread making including no-knead and the Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a Day technique. That latter is a bit too wet for my son, who does not enjoy the feeling of sticky dough. So instead, I use the traditional bread recipe from Michael Ruhlman (below).
I let him play with some of the dough after I’ve kneaded it for a few minutes. His play is effectively kneading, and he watches me continue to knead the rest of the dough. When he is done, they all rise together and anything that doesn’t naturally incorporate while rising gets fully incorporated at the next knead.
Come afternoon or evening, we have a beautiful loaf of bread for the family, and he has the pride of having helped. Plus, there’s nothing left over to store, or get dried out. That is a zero waste win.
Michael Ruhlman’s Basic Bread Dough
A note for cooking nerds: if you haven’t read his bookRatio, read it! It will change the way you understand the science of cooking and baking in particular.
This recipe is slightly modified from his, just based on my personal experiences and preferences.
20 ounces of bread flour
12 ounces of water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active yeast
Optional: raisins + 1 tsp honey
Fill a small measuring cup with lukewarm water and the yeast. If you will be adding raisins, put the honey in with the water and yeast. Let sit for 5 minutes. If the yeast does not bubble, then it is old and worn out. Toss it, and start again with fresh yeast.
If you have a kitchen scale, measure 20 ounces of bread flour on that (the book explains why scales are better than measuring cups.) If you do not have a scale, make sure your flour is well aerated and measure out about 4 cups of flour. Place in a large bowl with the salt (whisk them together gently).
Pour water and activated yeast over the flour and use your hands to combine. If you’ve got a kid that loves sticky messes, then let them dig in and help out. If not, save this part for yourself or use a stand mixer with a dough hook. When the dough is fully combined knead in the bowl for a minute or two. Add about a cup of raisins now, if desired.
Flour a clean working surface, take your well combined dough out of the bowl and knead here for 5-10 minutes. If your kid is antsy to play, give them a small amount of dough now. You can always trade them in a bit and get that piece kneaded.
Flour a small working surface for your child and give them a piece of dough the size of their fist to play with. Keep working at your own kneading. Knead until when you stretch the dough is elastic and doesn't break.
Place the dough back in the bowl, cover with a dishtowel, and let it sit until it has doubled in size. I like to keep it in the warmest part of the kitchen, so if I’ve got a pot of soup on it stays near there or in a pinch I’ll put it on a stool next to the radiator. To test if the dough is done rising, push your finger into it. If it springs back, it needs more time. If there’s resistance, it is good to go.
Set the oven to 450º F/ 230º C.
Again, flour a clean surface and put the dough on it. Knead it enough to get the air out and then let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Shape the dough into a boule (round with a flat bottom) and let it rest, covered with a dishtowel, for one hour. If you don’t have a pizza peel, make sure that it is resting on a cutting board so that you can easily transfer it into the oven. A sprinkling of cornmeal before you place the boule down can help ease the transfer.
15 minutes before you are ready to bake, place a large cast iron pan into the oven (large enough to fit the loaf.) And place the broiler sheet or a large shallow pan under the rack that the cast iron pan is on.
When you are ready to bake, remove the cast iron pan from the oven and slide your boule into it. Return it to the oven and take 1 cup of water and pour it into the boiler sheet or shallow pan and quickly close the door. The steam that is released will give your bread a beautiful crust. (Note: many swear by the Dutch oven method of baking to get a nice crust, but I’ve found that nothing compares to a real burst of steam and putting the bread directly on a hot surface — either a pizza stone or cast iron pan.)
Cook for 10 minutes at 450º F/ 230º C then reduce the temperature to 375º F/190º C and cook for another 45-50 minutes. When the bread is ready, it will have a nice hollow sound when you knock it on the top.
Enjoy warm with room temperature salted butter (always salted for bread!) orcashew ricotta.