It has been way too long since I baked a loaf of bread. You see, I went on a bit of a bread-baking bender after taking a class a couple years ago. There was White Batter Bread and Chocolate Orange Bread, a Fougasse, a Pumpernickel (later updated to my now-favorite Russian Black Bread), darling Bretzel Rolls, ever-so-popular No-Knead Bread, homemade English Muffins, a Potato Rosemary Bread (nom), an Italian Bread that felt like it took 100 years to make, oh and then some miniature Soft Pretzels, and this doesn’t even include the insane homemade pizza bender that followed. Is it any surprise I took a little break from bread-making for a while shortly after I started by yeast by the jar?
Nevertheless, it took something new and different to lure me back, something it would be near-criminal not to share. I’m talking about bread that doesn’t require you to dote on it or force you to adhere to an unforgiving schedule. Like, whoa, right?
Here’s how most bread is made: You proof some yeast for an exact amount of time, you mix the ingredients together, you knead for a certain number of minutes (because recipes always specify, which seems awfully bossy if you ask me), you let it rise for a specific number of hours, you deflate the dough and form it into a loaf, you let it rise once again for a set amount of time and then you bake it for a really precise amount of time that does little to consider variations in yeast quality, oven temperatures and the length of the bread.
Given all of these really specific instructions that tend to span just about five hours, no wonder, really, that almost 50 of you told me that baking bread was your biggest cooking phobia.
Enter Laurie Colwin (quite possibly my new favorite food writer after I practically ate her Home Cooking book whole when I finally tore into a couple weeks ago, and you should too): She shares a recipe that doesn’t require you to stay home all day, fretting over a dough (Will it rise? What if it rises too much? What if I don’t punch it down soon enough?) and being inevitably disappointed when your reward for your dedicated hours is, well, just a loaf of homemade bread.
Reading English Bread and Yeast by Elizabeth David, Colwin learned that bread dough will rise slowly at room temperature by using less yeast. (We were introduced to this concept with the No-Knead Bread, and it’s great to see another application of the principle.) Furthermore, the bread develops the taste of wheat, rather than yeast, creating the kind of homemade bread aroma that has lingered in our apartment for three days now.
First read this: Now, if you’re one of the 50 (fifty!) people who said that bread making terrifies you, I do have what I think is a great starter post for you, Eight Tips for Less Intimidating Bread, wherein I do my best to demystify bread-baking.
One year ago: Seriously Red Red Velvet Cake
Two years ago: Bingo! White Batter Bread (another no-kneading-required bread), Chocolate Orange Bread
Wheat Bread Without a Timetable
Adapted very loosely from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking
This recipe yields a fairly dense, dark wheat bread. You could swap out the wheat flour with any amount of white, if you wish to tenderize it a bit. The recipe differs from most bread recipes in many ways: there’s no set schedule, it’s incredibly forgiving and it’s actually coated with flour, not oil, when it rises. But really, Colwin says it best:
“Bread like this will astonish your friends. It makes a perfect house present. Even if the crust splits during baking, it is still a wonderful-looking loaf. The actual man work, so to speak, is under half an hour. The yeast does the rest for you. You, of course, get all the credit.”
1. Into a large bread bowl, put 1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour, 1 1/2 cups stone-ground wheat flour and 3/4 cups coarse ground whole wheat flour (if you can’t find coarse ground, simply add regular whole wheat flour. I used buckwheat flour, because I’ve been feeling guilty about buying it eons ago and never using it.). Add one heaping teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of sugar (my addition, I think bread benefits from a little sweetness) and one tablespoon of wheat or corn germ. (I’m pretty sure I used bran instead, because that’s what I had on hand. Really, you can’t break this bread.)
2. Mix 1/2 scant teaspoon of yeast (active dry is just fine) with 1 1/2 cups of liquid–half milk, half water, or more water than milk–whatever you have on hand. (If you’re going to leave it overnight, use 1/4 teaspoon of yeast.)
3. Pour the liquid into the flour and stir it up. (If you have a KitchenAid, you can use the paddle attachement for this, then switch to the kneading hook when you’re done.) The dough should be neither dry nor sticky, but should tend more toward to the stick than the dry. If too sticky, add a little more flour.
4. Knead the dough well, roll it in flour, put it in a warm bowl (although I have put it in a regular old bowl right off the shelf, says Colwin, as did I) . I covered mine with plastic wrap at this time–a towel works as well–but realize it might not be neccessary. Leave it in a cool, draft-free place and go about your business. (We decided to check out the 8th Annual New York Pickle Festival, not that you asked.)
5. Whenever you happen to get home, punch down the dough, knead it well and forget about it until convenient.
6. Sometime later (with a long first rise, a short second rise is fine, but a long one is fine, too) punch the dough down, give it a final kneading, shape into a baguette* (see my notes below), slash the top with four diagonal cuts, brush wtih water and let proof for a few minutes (it was 30 minutes, in our case). However, if you haven’t the time, it can go straight into the oven.
7. You can preheat the oven or put it in a cold oven, it matters not a bit. Bake at 450° fr half an hour. Turn the oven to 425 ° and bake for another five to twenty minutes. (This range is long because I found my bread was done–sounded hollow when I tapped the bottom, quite brown on the outside and registered 200 or so on a thermometer, all different techiniques to check for doneness–after just 5 more minutes, but Colwin suggests 20. It will vary based on the density of your bread, the size of your baguette, etc. etc. so just check in with it every five minutes or so.)
* Deb’s Baguette Technique: (You can see this in photos throughout the post.) Pat the dough out gently into something approximating a rectangle. On the long side, fold in the bottom two corners, just a bit. Now begin rolling the dough, tucking the seam underneath.You can stretch the baguette at this point to make it longer or leave it as is.