February
26 - 2009

Amazingly easy, incredible bread – and cookbook GIVEAWAY (winner named – see 3/19 post)

I own a cookbook that has a recipe titled “Best and Easiest Home-Baked Bread.” The recipe has you mix up a starter and let it sit 2 to 8 hours; make a sponge and let it rise 4 to 8 hours; knead more flour into the sponge to form a dough (by hand, mixer or food processor); let that dough rise an hour; turn it out into a bowl or basket so the loaf can rise; heat the oven to 500 degrees and put cornmeal on a baking stone; slash the loaf — and bake. The next time you want bread, do it again.

Don’t get me wrong. That makes a good loaf of bread. But I think I’ve REALLY found the easiest and best way to make the easiest and best bread — not to mention pizza, sweet rolls and other things I haven’t even discovered yet.

My new method is a hybrid of the no-knead bread I wrote about last year, and the methods described in the wonderful cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking. The latter has all the information you need to make many different varieties of bread, from bialies to whole-grain to sweets to … you name it. Honestly, I haven’t delved completely into the book, because I have been hung up on the perfect bread.

Read to the end to win a free, autographed copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day!

Where the melding comes in is in the baking process. Artisan Bread in Five calls for you to put the loaf on a stone, spritz the oven, etc. Those steps make for a great bread, and for a special loaf I’m willing to do them. But for every day, I find all those steps so time-consuming (and likely to burn my clumsy hands) that years ago, I gave up and started buying my bread at Costco.

But by combining the two, I haven’t bought a loaf of bread in weeks and weeks.

The only caveat: You must mix it one day and bake it on another day. The days don’t have to be consecutive, but you do need to give the dough time to grow.

Here’s how to do it:

Mixing day:

1. Get a container that can hold several quarts of dough. This is a 2-gallon plastic container with a lid, from Wal-Mart. I contemplated using a glass jar (perhaps my old pickle crock that has no pickles in it), but the dimensions of this one mean it takes up little space in the fridge.

Add ingredients as follows:

  • 3 cups of warm water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of yeast
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
  • 6 1/2 cups of flour. The recipe calls for all-purpose flour. I usually bake bread with bread flour, which is a higher-protein flour that typically makes longer strands of gluten. And I like a little bit of whole-grain tooth. For this recipe, I’ve generally been using 1 cup of whole wheat flour (ours is stone-ground and quite rough), 1 1/2 cups of bread flour, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour. Experiment with mixtures you like.

(The book describes a mnemonic device to remember quantities: 6-3-3-13. That stands for {*EDITED* to be correct! Thx Jessie!} 6 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of yeast, 3 tablespoons of salt, and 13 cups of flour. HALVE this for one batch of dough … or make a huge batch in a bigger container.)

2. Stir up the ingredients until everything is damp. If you live in a dry climate and your flour seems exceptionally dry, add a little bit more water (a couple of tablespoons). Don’t worry about being super thorough — overmixing isn’t necessary. This should take about 2 minutes.

3. Put it in the refrigerator. Overnight is good. A full day is great. Up to a week or two should be OK. This is what it will look like after it’s been chilling and rising:

Baking day:

1. Get the dough out of the fridge. You’ll want a nice, peaceful, nonstick surface for your dough to rise on. I like to use a Silpat mat — it is nonstick, nontoxic, reusable, heat safe, and flexible for easy dough-dumping. (I got mine 10 years ago at New York Cake & Pastry, which is stamped on the mat, making them a useful souvenir of my time cooking in NYC.) If you don’t have a Silpat, you can use the counter, a towel or a small plate or cutting board.

2. Dust your rising surface with a good coat of flour. Any kind will do.

3. Pull off a hunk of dough. Again, the book gives fabulous guidelines: A piece the size of a grapefruit is about a pound. A piece the size of a cantaloupe is about 1 1/2 lbs. I use a piece probably closer to 2 pounds — the size of a really big cantaloupe, or maybe a somewhat petite honeydew. The book suggests cutting the dough; mine usually tears easily and doesn’t require cutting.

Set the dough on the floured surface. Flour your hands. Shape the wad of dough into a round loaf just like this:

YouTube Preview Image

4. Cover the dough with a towel and let it nap for a while. How long it rises will depend on how warm your kitchen is. An hour is sufficient if it’s warm (75-80 degrees and up). My kitchen is usually freezing (60-62 degrees), so I leave it out about 2 to 3 hours.

5. About 25 minutes before you want to start baking the bread, put your covered heatproof pan in the oven and turn the oven on to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. (My pan is a Williams-Sonoma covered cast-iron Dutch oven skillet that my co-worker Jill, God bless her, gave me in 1992.) I like to put the pan in the oven when I start the bread rising, long before I turn the oven on; otherwise, I am prone to forget it and just heat the oven sans pan. We leave our pizza stone in the oven all the time, so that’s the surface that you see under the pan.

6. When the oven is preheated, uncover your dough. It doesn’t look too much different — just a little bit taller, softer and more refreshed after its rising “nap.”

7. I bend the edges of the Silpat around the dough to shake as much flour close to the dough as I can to minimize the mess. Take the pan out of the oven (careful! It’s SO hot) and remove the lid. Carefully dump the dough into the pan. What was the bottom will be on top, with some rough edges showing. That’s OK! It will all work out in the end.

8. Bake for about 30 minutes. Then open the oven, take off the lid, and let the bread keep on baking for about 20 minutes longer. (Notice how those rough edges have made a gorgeous crown on the bread.)

9. It comes out of the oven brown and amazing!

10. Gently (and carefully!) tip the bread out of the pan and let the bread cool completely on a rack.

12. Slice it and enjoy the texture. It should be moist, chewy and crusty — perfect for toast, sandwiches or just scarfing down with butter. (For the butter, check out this post.)

Please note that it has probably taken you almost as long to read this post as to make the bread!

Tip: For breads with a firm crust like this, you don’t even have to wrap them up to store them for a day or so. Just set them with the sliced edge down on a clean cutting board and slice as needed.

What else can you do with this dough?

The short answer: What do you want to do?

So far, we’ve used it for:

  • Sandwich bread. Instead of forming a boule, stretch the dough into a rectangle, about 8″x10″, with your hands. Roll it up from one short end and place in a greased loaf pan to rise. Bake (by itself at 375F, or pop it into the oven with the boule) for about 40 minutes. Knock on it to see if it’s done — if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Brush the top with butter or oil before or right after baking if you want a non-ashy finish.
  • Pizza. Mr. Cheap is a champion pizza maker, and this dough makes the best (and easiest!) pizza dough ever. No starting dough after work (even though that is fast). Just grab a lump from the fridge, roll it out flat, top it and pop it in the oven, either on a pizza pan or using a peel and sliding it onto a stone.
  • Little rolls from the last bit in the container.

  • Baguettes — stretch the dough into a rectangle, roll it up from the long side, pinch the bottom together, elongate the ends and let rise in a baguette pan. Slash the top (I think I forgot with the ones in the photo!) and bake at 450F for about 25 minutes. (For this one, because the steam won’t be trapped inside the Dutch oven, and a crispy, firm crust is necessary, I did use a water bath in the bottom of the oven. The steam helps form a hard crust and seal moisture into the loaf. Fill a metal pie pan with about 1″ of water and place it on the bottom rack when you preheat the oven.)

  • And of course, I made the pecan rolls from the book. They’re as good as they look!

Then what do you do?

This might be the best part: When you use up the last bit of dough, you … start again.

No washing the container. No scrubbing little bits of sticky bread-dough goo out of the bowl, out of your sponge or brush, out of the sink.

And on about my fifth batch, the container has begun to develop a faint, wonderful sourdough aroma. No-hassle sourdough? That’s phenomenal! Just begin again with the ingredients, mix it together, and wait for your dough to get more and more delicious.

(but please note: If you forget your dough, or your container with dough in it begins to develop any suspicious colors, aromas, etc., please do wash and sanitize the container and start ALL over.)

The only drawback?

I’m afraid we’re spoiling our 7-year-old and creating a bread-snob monster. This week, I found a loaf of store-bought sandwich bread in the freezer and brought it in to use up in toast and sandwiches. Yesterday, her lunchbox returned home with what looked like her sandwich … minus the innards — just the two half-slices of bread resting neatly together in her box, the cheese gone from inside.

“What’s up with the bread?” I asked. “You didn’t like your sandwich?”

“The cheese was good,” she answered. “But the bread … I really didn’t like it. It was neither warm, nor crusty.”

So parents, beware — but I think the price is worth the suffering.

Enter the giveaway

The Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook includes information on how to make a same-day loaf, rye bread, bread with nuts, seeds or other goodies, whole wheat bread, corn bread, flatbreads — and a lot of great-looking recipes using those doughs. It also includes all the details you need to bake perfect bread yourself.

Want a copy? Leave a comment below by the end of the day Wednesday, March 18, and you’ll be entered in the random drawing to win a free, autographed copy of the book from the authors, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois! Be sure to include an e-mail address, either in your login or your comment itself, so we can contact you if you’re the winner!

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