I bake bread every morning. Not with a machine. I do it all by hand; and yes, I have a full-time job as well. It's not a problem. It takes about 30 minutes each morning, and we eat fresh bread each day. It is as light and well-structured as shop-bought bread, and, I guess, has fewer additives.
The secret is in the proving. The books don't really emphasise how important the proving process is, but if you want light, airy bread, then you are going to have to leave it to prove for a decent period of time.
My recipe is very basic. I make a single batch from 750g of strong white bread flour; about 450 ml of water; yeast and a generous teaspoon of salt. The 'strong' simply means the flour has extra gluten. Plain flour can work, but never use self-raising because that contains bicarbonate of soda.
Update April 2005. I've progressed to wholemeal bread. I now mix a kilo of strong white flour with a kilo of strong wholemeal flour, add about four teaspoons of salt (one per 500g flour), then add the wet ingredients. The yeast mix uses one level teaspoon of dried yeast per kilo of flour, so I use two level teaspoons. Then enough water to make a soft dough.
Update September 2005. Now I use seeds too. Caraway, which adds an exotic east European flavour that goes especially well with cold meats and cheeses. Then some poppy seeds and chopped pumpkin seeds and linseed seeds and chopped sunflower seeds for a bit of texture and added goodness.
I first weigh out about 20g each of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, then pour them onto a chopping board, to chop them down to a sensible size, or whizz them in a seed mill. Return them to a small pot on the scales, and add a further 10 - 15g of caraway and10g of poppy seeds and another 20g or so of linseed seeds. Obviously, you choose your own mixture to suit your own tastes, but about 100g of seeds to 2 kg of flour makes a good combination.
The most important bit of my recipe is activating the yeast. I choose not to use the quick-rise stuff, which is made into tiny particles ready to add to the flour and water. Instead, I buy large packs of dried yeast, mix about a teaspoon of it with about 100ml of warm water and half a teaspoon of sugar, and leave it in a not-too-cold place for five to ten minutes until the dried yeast has re-constituted itself and the mixture has a really good foamy head on it (at least the same volume as the water/yeast mixture). It is important not to rush this step. You have to have good, active yeast, or the bread won't rise. And if it is not activated, another five minutes' wait is not going to do any harm.
My local Italian baker told me that he uses fresh yeast, but only because of the cost. Dried, he said is probably better, but too expensive for commercial bakeries. He offered me some fresh yeast, but said he was not allowed to sell it because it has not passed the relevant food safety tests.
SharQ says fresh yeast is readily available in Norway, while heyoka says you can buy it from the supermarkets which also have a bakery.
Once the yeast is properly activated, I mix it with the flour and salt, then use the remaining water to wash out the yeasty jug, and mix the ingredients up. I don't worry too much about the temperature of the extra water, except to ensure that it is not above 40C, when it might kill the yeasts. Usually it is pretty much straight from the cold tap. I have thought about adding some ascorbic acid to help the proving process, but never really seem to need it.
I knead the dough by hand. It does not take long and sometimes the children help. I tend to make the dough wetter than some. I make it soft enough that it is easy to work. That is just a fraction drier than too gloopy. If I discover that it is too wet and sticky, even after all the flour is mixed in, then it is easy to correct by adding a small amount of extra flour. Once the flour has absorbed the water, and the dough is reasonably homogeneous, I stop.
Update Long experience has taught me that light airy bread results only from a wet dough. If the dough is too stiff, then it won't rise properly. Here's how to get dough of the right texture. First mix the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Then add a little less water than you need, mix it gently and lift the lumpy mass onto a work surface, then knead it into a dough. It will probably be too dry. Add more water to the remaining flour until you have a paste. Spread this paste onto the too-dry dough mixture and knead it together. Repeat as necessary until the dough mixture is firm enough to knead, but still soft enough to be easily worked.
A double batch of dough (1.5kg flour, and double all the other quantities) is enough for three days, so I tend to make one double batch of dough, and split it into three parts. Each part weighs about 800g by the time the water and other ingredients are mixed in. Getting to this stage takes 20 minutes or so㬚 if you include the time waiting for the yeast to activate. Then another 10 to 15 minutes to wash up means the dough-making phase takes well under an hour.
I put each of the three balls of dough into a plastic freezer bag, and put those in the 'fridge to cool down.
After an hour or three, the dough has both cooled and risen, so I take it out of the bags, punch it down, knead it lightly, return the dough to the bags and put all three in the freezer. This step takes only a few minutes.
Update No need for all that punching down. Just split the dough into portions, drop them into freezer bags and into the freezer.
Last thing at night, I take one of the frozen balls out of the freezer, remove it from the plastic, and put the frozen dough into a bowl and place the whole lot into a large, moist plastic bag, otherwise a dry crust forms on the uncooked dough.
The dough rises again overnight, and becomes smooth and elastic. Perhaps even a bit on the soggy side. This is good. As soon as I get up, I switch the oven to about 210C and start dividing the dough into buns, or making a loaf**, but buns seem to go down well in our house. I don't knead it at all, just split the dough into the right sized pieces and put them in the oven. I don't glaze it or put seeds on or anything. After 12 to 15 minutes, it is cooked and the children have fresh bread for their breakfast.
Update if you want to make a loaf, then you need more proving time. Rolls and buns you can simply split the risen dough into portions and whack it into the oven with no need for a second proving time. For a loaf, the mass of dough is too much, so you need to leave it for a while to rise again before baking it.
One more tip. I said that I make my dough fairly wet. This makes it easier to work and helps the proving, but it also means I need to wipe the baking trays with a hint of oil before putting the uncooked bread onto them prior to baking. You don't have to do this, but you risk having the bread stick to the tray, which is a pain, and means more washing up.
I have to make a batch of dough a couple of times a week. I can do this in the evening or at the weekend with little inconvenience.
A note on proving.
My bread-making enthusiasm was triggered when we bought a fancy new oven with all the settings for bread-making. In the early days I used to make a double batch of dough, then leave it to prove in the warm oven for an hour or so. This ended up being a very variable process. The dough sometimes rose a lot and sometimes not enough. And I had to make sure everything kept warm, and get temperatures right. It was a pain, and I always seemed to want to speed the process up. It would take a minimum of two hours from starting until we could eat the bread. This was not practical except on lazy weekend mornings. It is also the wrong way to make good bread. I ended up with bread which was a bit heavy, inelastic and tended to crumble when cut with a knife. Now that I leave the bread to prove for a lot longeralbeit at much lower temperaturesI never get a bad batch of bread. It is always airy, light and delicious.
Another point to note is that even with bread that has repeatedly risen and been kneaded down again, is that there are plenty of microcells within the dough. It looks like a solid mass, but when it goes into the oven, those microcells open up and the dough transforms into light, airy, well-textured bread. The point is, that if it has proved enough, then you needn't be afraid of getting rid of all the bubbles before slamming it in the oven.
Because I use such a simple recipe, the bread does not keep—it is much better eaten on the day it is made, but that never seems to be a problem in our house.