Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the subject of bread.

One thing I always say I’m going to do when I have time off is bake bread. And then I don’t do it because a million other things come up. I’m pretty sure the idea of baking bread crosses my mind every single weekend. How I’ll look at the recipe and plan out exactly how much time I’ll need – if I need to make it over two days, if I need to get up early…can I leave it and go run errands? Is it warm enough in the house for a proper rise? Is it okay if I measure rather than weigh my ingredients? Is the yeast alive? Or too frozen? Did my dough pass the windowpane test? Is it the right texture? Did it rise enough? Or too much? Did it proof properly? Is the crust too brown? Burnt even?

You get the idea. Maybe bread stresses me out a little because so much of the science is out of my hands. I can only follow the basic directions and hope that my sense of when it’s right to move onto the next step is correct! The only other bread I’ve posted about here is anadama, and with that I swear I had beginner’s luck. Since then I’ve made a bunch of yeast breads, even donuts, and I feel much more comfortable. With bread it’s definitely true that practice makes perfect. But I still always question…

About to go in the oven...

The easiest bread I’ve come across is Michael Ruhlman’s basic recipe from Ratio (I’ve been on a Ratio kick lately). It’s got four ingredients and doesn’t take much time out of the rest of your life to complete. When I make this super basic bread I like to shape it into a boule, brush it with fruity olive oil and sea salt, and bake it in a dutch oven for a gorgeous crispy crust.
Yeah, you’ll ask yourself a lot of the same questions as above when deciding to bake bread and then actually doing it – but nothing bad will happen if you fail. And if you succeed, which you likely will, you will be handsomely rewarded with the best toast ever.

Basic Bread
my interpretation based on what I learned from Michael Ruhlman's Ratio

4 cups all purpose flour
12 ounces water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active or instant yeast
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
coarse sea salt

In a large mixing bowl, add flour, then salt, then water. Sprinkle the yeast on the surface of the water - this will allow it to dissolve. Give it about a minute.

Fit the bowl into your electric mixer and using the paddle attachment, mix until a dough is formed. (You should be able to peel the dough off of the paddle in a loose ball.) Replace paddle with dough hook attachment and mix on low for about 10-12 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. You can also do this by hand, and if this is your first time you should. Kneading dough by hand is something everyone should try.

To test to see if your dough is ready for the next step, tear a chunk off and stretch it into a square. If you can stretch it to translucence without it tearing, it's ready for the first rise. (This is the infamous "windowpane test".)

Remove mixing bowl from mixer and cover with plastic wrap. Allow dough to rise to about twice its size. To check for doneness, when you poke the dough with your finger there should be some resistance, but it should not spring back. If it does, it needs to rise longer. (For me, with this particular bread it can take anywhere from 1 hour and 15 mins to 2 hours.)

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times to expel gas. Cover with a dish towel and let it rest about 10-15 minutes.

After rest, form into a circular boule shape by pushing it around on the counter in a circular motion. Lightly oil the bottom of your dutch oven and place your newly formed boule inside. Cover with a dish towel and let proof for 1 hour. (It will rise and get a bit bigger.)

Preheat oven to 450˚. When dough has risen, coat with olive oil and top with a few grinds of coarse sea salt. Score the dough with an "x", place the lid on top and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue baking uncovered until done (internal temp will be 200˚- 210˚, will sound hollow when you knock on the bottom of the loaf), about 15-30 minutes.

Mine is usually done after about 15 minutes - I think my oven is a bit on the warm side. If your boule is starting to brown too much, just cover the top with a bit of foil. When you deem yours done, remove it from the dutch oven and let it cool on a wire rack. Then devour! It keeps fine, but after day 1 it will take a good toasting to bring the luscious crisp back to the with many homemade breads.

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