Yesterday I mentioned the author Sapphire, from whose novel Push director Lee Daniels created his new film Precious. Journalist, critic and critical thinker Ernest Hardy posted an interview with Sapphire yesterday on his blog, Blood Beats. It's excerpted, he says, from a longer version that appears in LA Weekly, which he writes for, and from an extended conversation that he and Sapphire had. It's definitely worth reading.
Continuing on the Precious tip, Tayari Jones recently noted on her blog that the controversy swirling about the film had gotten to her so much that she decided to bake a 7-Up pound cake--and she posted the recipe on her blog. (I am going to have to try it.) It looks delicious enough to calm anyone facing anything.
(BTW, Congratulations to Tayari also for having her new novel picked up by Algonquin Books!)
I can't claim similar grounds for my baking, but I do look forward to any excuse to create a loaf of bread. I don't know what is going on with this bread-baking mania, but I really enjoy doing it, and it really calms me down. I did finally make one of the bread recipes Miriam sent, for Irish soda bread--and then turned what was left of it into bread pudding with chocolate that was one of the best desserts I've made in some time. But before I post that, I'm going to post the basic bread recipe from which almost any standard loaf can be made.
I should add that a number of people I know either can no longer eat bread--at least store-bought bread--or deign to for dieting purposes, but I wonder if this homemade bread has the same effect. Recently when we had gone through several micro-sized baguettes I baked C bought some bread from Calandra's Bakery, and it molded after about 4 days (!?), while other store-bought bread--baguettes, Italian bread, etc.--turns to stone if left out of the refrigerator. The bread I bake 1) usually keeps for a week without mold if not refrigerated; 2) retains its flavor for weeks, even if refrigerated; and 3) maintains its consistency as well. I wrote to Calandra's to let them know about their bread, but I got a very terse, robotic response from some PR person, so if you're in northeastern New Jersey and shopping for what you think is homemade-style bread, you've been forewarned.
The Basic Recipe
I adapted my basic recipe from Mark Bittman's New York Times "no knead" recipe. It's a better bet than his book, How to Cook Everything, which is excellent but unaccountably uses "pounds" instead of "cups" for the basic recipe, which causes unnecessary confusion. There are several keys to getting consistently good bread with this recipe, I've learned. First, you should always use rapid-rise yeast. Second, mix the flour in a glass bowl, then cover it with a plastic shopping bag (which increases the heat and moisture in the bowl and yeast growth) held in place by a rubber band--it's far more effective than a loosely draped tea towel, a cutting board, etc. Third, keep the covered bowl in a warm part of your kitchen. Fourth, always use a little olive oil during the second (even if brief) knead period. It is essential to prevent the dough from sticking or burning, and it adds flavor.
Okay, so here goes. You start with:
1 packet of rapid-rise/quick-rising yeast (VERY IMPORTANT)
2 teaspoons of salt (Bittman says 1.5, but 2 give more flavor)
3 cups of bread/unbleached flour/whole wheat/rye flour
1/2 cup of pastry flour (VERY IMPORTANT)
1 1/2 cups of water (you can often use a little less but adjust according to the dough's consistency)
C figured out the pastry flour addition. It is essential because pastry flour has LESS gluten and is lighter than regular flour, so when the dough rises, it adds more air bubbles. Do not use self-rising flour, cake flour, or other kinds of prepared flours. Some combos to try are:
1) 3 cups of unbleached whole wheat bread flour + pastry flour = French/white bread
2) 3 cups of unbleached general purpose flour + pastry flour = French/white bread
3) 1 cup of stone ground whole wheat flour + 2 cups of unbleached whole wheat bread flour + pastry flour = lighter whole wheat bread (hearty)
4) 3 cups of stone ground whole wheat flour + pastry flour = fuller whole wheat bread (VERY hearty)
5) 3 cups of whole rye flour + pastry flour = rye bread (and darker than rye bread that you buy in the store--EXTREMELY hearty)
And so on. The proportions are key, and the heavier the basic flour (rye, whole wheat), the more important the pastry flour.
To start, you pour the yeast and salt in the bowl, then add the flour. I either gently stir or whisk these together to ensure that everything is well distributed. Then you slowly add the water. It may not seem to be binding into dough at first, but keep stirring and folding it, with a wooden spoon (you could use your fingers as well), and you will see that it starts to become shaggy, then more of a ball. I suggest not adding all the water if you can; you don't want the dough to be a wet mess, just moist. If it's too wet, then add a little more flour. But if it appears too dry after you'd added the suggested amount of water above, then add a little bit more water so that you can at least pull it from the sides of the glass. Create a little ball, and then cover it with a plastic bag (the basic supermarket ones are great), holding it in place with a rubber band. You don't want any air to get in or out. Let it sit for 3-4 hours. You could create it in the morning before work, and it'll be ready when you get home. It also can sit for longer (6-7 hours, etc.).
NOTE: Rye bread does not rise as much as other kinds of bread. Bittman says it barely rises at all, but with the pastry flour, mine does expand a bit. So don't be dismayed if it doesn't puff up like wheat/white bread.
After the dough has sat for the necessary amount of time and risen (you will see it double or sometimes triple in size), you want to pull it out and on a clean, lightly oiled (olive oil) cutting board, press it down and fold it into itself several times. I always do this by hand. Do not overknead it, but perhaps turn it into itself about 10 or so times. This is the stage at which you can add raisins, nuts like pecans, walnuts and pignoli, olives, herbs like rosemary or chives, garlic, chunks of sun-dried tomato, anything. I have tried many of these. The key is to make sure they're not oily or wet (so wash the pitted olives well and dry them). When you've kneaded or added ingredients and kneaded the dough, form it into another ball and return it to the plastic bag-covered bowl. Let it sit and rerise for another 1/2 hour. (You could let it sit for longer if you like, but usually 1 hour max is great.)
Now comes another important step. As the bread is rerising, you should turn the oven on and set it to 450°. If it takes your oven a while to warm up, start as soon as you return the dough to the bowl. If it warms up quickly, you can do this about 15-20 minutes before you bake the bread. You want the oven HOT, though, when the bread goes in. About 10-15 minutes before you bake the bread, you should put whatever you're baking the bread in or on--an ovensafe covered crock/French pot, a baking sheet, a bread stone--into the oven so that it warms too. I either use a covered crock pot or a baking sheet, depending upon the bread I'm making. Neither needs to be oiled because you've already oiled the bread, and loose oil in a crockpot or on a baking sheet will begin to smoke...bad news!
When the bread has sat for at least 1/2 hour and rerisen, remove the plastic-bag cover. Then remove the crock pot/baking sheet/bread stone and set it atop your stove. You should carefully place the rerisen dough into the crockpot (and cover, to keep the steam in, which will make the bread light inside and hard outside) or onto the baking sheet/bread stone. Form it into a boulle or round loaf, or stretch it out if you want a longish loaf. (For baguettes, break it into two pieces and stretch them out. Put it back into the 45o° oven and let it cook for 30 minutes. (During the baking process, you can gingerly score the top with a knife if you want to be fancy.)
If you put it in a crockpot, remove the pot top (a palindrome!) after 30 minutes, and let the bread bake uncovered for 15 more. It should be light/golden brown on top. If you cook it on a baking sheet, it will also be golden brown, but the crust won't be as hard. The trick to getting a harder crust if you bake the bread on a baking sheet is when you initially put the baking sheet in the oven, to place a pan underneath it, let it heat for a little bit, then CAREFULLY add water so that it steams. You can also spritz (or use your fingers to sprinkle) water on the hot insides of the oven and on the baking sheet to create steam. This creates a hard crust, and is essential if you're making baguettes.
Also, be VERY CAREFUL when spritzing not to splash water on the oven's light bulb. Why? Because it explodes! I can attest to how difficult it is to clean up the broken glass, and to having to throw out the bread for fear it's been pierced by glass shards. Not fun.
Remove the bread after more 15 minutes or it's browned on top. You don't want it to burn. Place it on a cutting board and let it cool to room temperature. Don't cut it right away, but let the inside cool. After about 5-10 minutes, if you want to try some with butter or olive oil, or something else, you can sample it. To keep it for a week, you just place in the same sort of plastic shopping bag you used to cover the rising dough, and let it sit out at room temperature. If your home (apt./house) is really warm, then refrigerate it after a few (2) days, but if not, it should keep for 5-7 days without refrigeration.
And that's the basic bread recipe! I'll post one for semolina bread, and one to make pumpernickel bread, very soon. Both are similar but involve a few more steps/tricks.
Some bread photos:
Rye bread, cooled and sliced
Pumpernickel bread (first time--I added too much molasses, so it was too sweet and crumbly. The second time I got the amount right. Recipe coming soon!)
My standard pecan loaf
Bread pudding, made with leftover Irish soda and chocolate