When my father fell ill some years before I was born, the pain would keep him awake at night. To pass the hours, he began baking bread.
The process soothed him. Calmed him. Took his mind off his troubles. And then, when the pain passed, he had a nice loaf of freshly baked bread to share and enjoy.
Making homemade bread is an art that has been lost to a lot of us in recent years — even my father gave it up after he was cured. It can be time-consuming and inconvenient, and if there is one overarching trend for the last, oh, century or so, it has been a movement toward greater convenience.
You can just pick up a simple loaf at a grocery store or a more complexly flavored, crusty loaf for somewhat more money at a bakery. But it is never the same as baking it yourself.
Even among people who still regularly bake bread at home, the trend has been toward convenience. Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread swept the nation several years ago, and more recently there was interest given to a recipe that can be made and baked in one hour.
But still, there are some of us who persist (occasionally, in my case) in making bread the old-fashioned way. It just tastes better when it comes out of your own oven — if you have mixed it, kneaded it, let it rise, punched it down, proofed it and baked it yourself.
That said, the no-knead recipe is awfully good.
Before we begin, a pointer. Bread flour has more protein than other flours, so the results are denser and chewier; bread baked with bread flour is the equivalent of pasta cooked al dente. But if you don’t have bread flour, don’t sweat it — all-purpose flour, which has a little less protein, is almost as good.
If you have never baked bread before it is probably best to start at the beginning, with a loaf of old-fashioned white bread. This is what bread used to be like before mass production robbed it of its soul. It goes with everything, makes great sandwiches and even better toast.
I made an Old-Fashioned White Loaf, which is old-fashioned in the sense that it is like bread before supermarkets began mass producing it and making it squishy. If you don’t know what old-fashioned bread is like, or have forgotten, this example may startle you. It has a full, round, deep flavor.
Still, it isn’t overpowering. This is terrific bread to toast or to spread with butter or jam or peanut butter. Or anything, really.
The next two types of bread I made took longer because they benefit immensely from the use of a sponge. A sponge is a mixture of flour, yeast and water that sits for at least several hours. During that time it begins to ferment, creating a marvelously complex, hearty flavor and a hint of a sour tang.
The longer the sponge ferments, the stronger the taste — and as a side benefit, the less yeast you have to use.
The Mediterranean Country-Style Bread I made took three days from start to finish, but the first two were spent making the sponge, which took little effort or time.
These loaves (the recipe makes two, but you could always freeze one) use about four parts of all-purpose flour to two parts of either barley, rye or whole-wheat flours. I used the rye, because I like rye, and the rye flavor was pronounced in the finished product. Barley or whole-wheat flours would contribute decidedly different nuances, and one of the great advantages of this recipe is that you can use it to create three distinct breads.
One of our taste testers who particularly loves rye bread said it was one of the best loaves of rye bread she had ever had.
In contrast to that bread, the Hearty Country Loaf took a relatively zippy two days to make, and I only spent a couple of minutes making the sponge on the first day.
This one may have been my favorite of the breads I made. Although it is predominantly made from bread flour, it also uses whole-wheat and rye flours for an extraordinary depth of flavor. And it even looks as good as it tastes. With its large, round shape lightly marked with indentations from the basket in which it was proofed (allowed to rise a second time) and the distinctive X cut into the top just before baking, you can’t tell the difference between it and a loaf you would find at a local bakery. A good local bakery.
Finally, I made a bread that essentially qualifies as dessert. Kolach is a traditional, special-occasion bread from Eastern Europe that is often brought out for one’s patron saint day. It makes a simply gorgeous loaf — it is braided and then the braid is coiled — and is topped with whole nuts for an extra festive flair.
But the great looks would be wasted if it were not also delicious. This is a light but rich bread, filled with butter and egg yolks and just enough lemon to shine through. It’s like challah, but not as sweet.
Try it with butter and a little honey. Then see if you don’t reach for another slice.
Yield: 2 large 2-pound loaves
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons minced lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 1/2 cups hot milk, 120 to 130 degrees
About 6 1/2 cups bread or all-purpose flour, divided
2 packages dry yeast
1 egg yolk, beaten, mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
1/4 cup whole nuts, your choice
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or by hand), cream the butter, egg yolks, sugar, salt, lemon zest and lemon juice. Mix the milk with the butter and yolk mixture. Add 2 cups of the flour. Add the yeast. Stir to blend well.
2. When the batter is smooth, add the rest of the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition, until the dough forms a mass that can be lifted out of the bowl in one ball. Place dough on a floured work surface to knead.
3. Knead the dough with an aggressive push-turn-fold motion, or use the dough hook on a mixer, for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. At this point it should not stick to the work surface or the sides of the mixer bowl.
4. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour (if using fast-rising yeast, it should take about half as long).
5. When the dough has risen, turn out onto a floured work surface and divide in half. Divide each half into 3 equal parts. With the palms of your hands, roll each part into a rope about 24 inches long. Braid 3 ropes at a time. Place the braids on a baking sheet and coil them. Tuck the end of the braid into the coil so that it doesn’t break loose as the dough rises. With your hands, gently push the coils into a symmetrical shape.
6. Cover the 2 coils with parchment paper or a cloth and set aside at room temperature until the dough doubles in bulk, about 50 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
7. Brush the loaves with the egg-milk glaze and carefully push the nuts into a pattern over the top of the loaves. Bake 1 hour until golden and the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. If you can’t fit both loaves on a single baking sheet, bake each loaf separately — place the reserved loaf in the refrigerator or cool place while the first loaf bakes. Cool 10 minutes on the baking sheet before placing the loaves on a metal rack to continue cooling.
Per serving (based on 40): 162 calories; 9 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 43 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 18 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 67 mg sodium; 26 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The Complete Book of Breads,” by Bernard Clayton Jr.
MEDITERRANEAN COUNTRY-STYLE BREAD
Yield: 2 loaves, about 1 1/4 pounds each
2 cups very warm, almost hot, water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
9 to 11 cups all-purpose white flour, divided
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 1/2 cups tepid water, divided
2 cups barley, rye or whole-wheat flour
2 to 3 tablespoons cornmeal or coarse semolina, as needed
Note: This recipe is made over 3 days.
1. Put the very warm water in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over it, and stir briefly with a wooden spoon to distribute the yeast through the water. Add 2 cups of the white flour, stir to mix well, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a cool place (50 to 70 degrees) to rise overnight.
2. The next day, uncover the bowl and add the salt, 1 cup of the tepid water and the barley, rye or whole wheat flour. Stir or mix thoroughly with your hands. Cover the bowl again, return to a cool place, and let it rise overnight.
3. On the third day, add the remaining 1 1/2 cups tepid water and about 7 cups white flour. Begin kneading in the bowl, then sprinkle a little flour over a wooden pastry board or countertop and turn the dough out. Knead thoroughly at least 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary, until you have a smooth, elastic dough. Rinse the mixing bowl, dry it, dust it with flour and put the dough back in. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature to rise until it has increased in volume about 2 1/2 times — about 2 to 3 hours.
4. Turn the dough out on the lightly floured board, punch it down, and knead briefly just to knock any air holes out. Form into 2 round or long loaves and place them on baking sheets (if you’re not using a baking stone) or on a wooden peel that has been lightly sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina. Set aside in a warm place (70 degrees or more) to rise rapidly, 30 minutes to 1 hour, until doubled in size.
5. If you’re using a baking stone, set it in the cold oven and preheat to 500 degrees for at least 30 minutes. If you’re using a baking sheet and no stone, simply preheat the oven to 500 degrees. When you’re ready to bake, slash the tops of the loaves with a very sharp knife in 3 or 4 places. Quickly slide the loaves into the oven, directly onto the hot stone if you’re using it, and bake 15 minutes. Turn down the heat to 350 degrees and bake 35 more minutes.
6. When the bread is done and the crust is golden brown, remove the loaves from the oven and let them cool on a rack.
Per serving (based on 40): 130 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; no sugar; 2 g fiber; 290 mg sodium; 8 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
HEARTY COUNTRY BREAD
Yield: 1 large round loaf
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 1/3 cups water at room temperature, divided
4 1/2 cups bread flour, divided
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rye flour
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt
Note: This bread takes 2 days to make
1. For the sponge: In a medium bowl, stir the yeast into 1 cup of the room-temperature water until dissolved. Mix in 1 cup of the bread flour and the whole wheat flour with a rubber spatula to create a stiff, wet dough. Cover with plastic wrap; let sit at room temperature for at least 5 hours or preferably overnight.
2. For the dough: Use a rubber spatula to mix the remaining 3 1/2 cups bread flour, rye flour, the remaining 1 1/3 cups tepid water, honey and the sponge from step 1 in the bowl of a standing mixer. Attach the dough hook and knead the dough at the lowest speed until the dough is smooth, about 15 minutes, adding the salt during the final 3 minutes (see note at end if kneading by hand). If the dough looks dry after the salt is added, add water in 1-tablespoon increments every 30 seconds until a smooth consistency is reached. Transfer the dough to a very lightly oiled large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until tripled in size, at least 2 hours.
3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Dust the top of the dough and your hands with flour. Lightly press the dough into a round by folding the edges of the dough into the middle from the top, right, bottom and left, sequentially, then gathering it loosely together. Transfer the dough, smooth-side down, to a colander or basket lined with heavily floured muslin or linen. Cover loosely with a large sheet of aluminum foil; let the dough rise until almost doubled in size, at least 45 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and place a large baking stone on the rack. Adjust the other rack to the lowest position and place a small empty baking pan on it. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
5. Cover a peel or the back of a large baking sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Invert the dough onto the peel and remove the muslin. Use a single-edge razor blade or sharp knife to cut a large X about 1/2-inch deep into the top of the dough. With scissors, trim the excess parchment around the dough.
6. Slide the dough, still on the parchment, from the peel onto the stone; remove the peel with a quick backward jerk. Pour 2 cups hot tap water into the heated pan on the bottom rack, being careful to avoid the steam. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the bottom of the bread reads 210 degrees and the crust is dark brown, 35 to 40 minutes, turning the bread after 25 minutes if it is not browning evenly. Turn the oven off, open the door and let the bread remain in the oven 10 minutes longer. Remove, then cool to room temperature before slicing, about 2 hours. To crisp the crust, place the cooled bread in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes.
If kneading by hand: Make the sponge as directed. Place the sponge and 1 1/2 cups of the bread flour, the rye flour, the remaining 1 1/3 cups tepid water, honey and salt in a large bowl. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until smooth, about 5 minutes. Work in the remaining 2 cups bread flour and then turn out onto a floured work surface. Knead by hand for 5 minutes, incorporating no more than an additional 1/4 cup flour as you work. The dough will be very wet and sticky. Proceed with the recipe.
Per serving (based on 20): 148 calories; 1g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 5 g protein; 31 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 234mg sodium; 8 mg calcium.
Recipe from “Baking Illustrated,” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine
OLD-FASHIONED WHITE LOAF
Yield: 1 medium loaf
1/4 cup warm water, 110 to 115 degrees
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast, or 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) instant yeast
1 cup warm whole milk, 110 to 115 degrees
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. Place the water, sugar and yeast in a small bowl and whisk to blend. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes, or until the yeast is activated and foamy or bubbling. In a medium bowl, whisk together the warm milk and melted butter.
2. Place the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix for 1 minute on medium speed to blend. Add the yeast mixture and milk mixture and mix on medium speed just until the dough comes together, 2 to 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp, lint-free cotton towel, and let the dough rest for 20 minutes to allow it to fully hydrate before further kneading. Turn the speed to medium-low and continue to knead until the dough is firm, elastic and smooth, 3 to 6 minutes. (To mix by hand, mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, add the yeast mixture and milk mixture, and mix until a dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead until firm, elastic and smooth, about 8 to 10 minutes).
3. Lightly oil a large bowl, scrape the dough into the bowl and lightly coat the surface of the dough with a little oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp, lint-free cotton towel and let the dough rise until doubled, 45 to 60 minutes (longer if the room is cold). If you are using a glass or see-through plastic bowl, be sure to mark the starting level of the dough with a pencil or piece of tape so it’s easy to tell when the dough has doubled.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Press down on the dough firmly to expel some of the air bubbles, but don’t knead the dough again or it will be too springy and difficult to shape (if this happens, simply cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp, lint-free cotton towel and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes to give the gluten some time to relax).
5. Shape the dough into a loaf by pressing it into a flattened rectangle whose sides are a couple of inches shorter than the long sides of a loaf pan. Arrange the dough so a long side is parallel to the edge of your work surface. Fold the long side opposite you up into the center of the rectangle; fold the long side near you into the center, pressing the edges together with the heel of your hand. Turn the dough 90 degrees and roll the short side opposite you toward the center, rolling it as tightly as you can. When you reach the bottom edge closest to you, pinch the final seam closed. The dough should be the same length as your loaf pan.
6. Lightly coat the loaf pan with melted butter or an oil spray (not olive). Place the dough, seam-side down, in the pan. Lightly oil the top of the dough to keep it moist. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap or a damp, lint-free cotton towel, and allow the dough to rise again until its top is 1/2 to 1 inch above the rim of the pan, 45 to 60 minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and position an oven rack in the center. Brush the top of the loaf with a thin film of the beaten egg. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and the internal temperature registers 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.
Per serving (based on 16): 115 calories; 3 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 17 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 230 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet
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