How many of you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’? I do, I’ve been known to binge-watch it, trying to second-guess each move and enjoying myself a great deal. However, I don’t cook like a chemist or physicist, though I believe in the science of baking. I cook with my hands and the touch of my fingers.
Bread is a deep pleasure, and I haven’t used a recipe since… I can’t recall. I throw it together– it’s a lazy bread that I make! The dough can be kept in the fridge for when you want it, for about a week.
There are in my mind five basic ingredients. Gently warm water, dry yeast, salt, olive oil and flour. To this I frequently add dollops of honey and several tablespoons of psyllium husk to up the fiber content and the moistness. The flour content is variable, since I’m fond of mixed grains. Dark rye flour at about an eighth to a quarter of the total amount of flour is nice. With that I often will use about half whole wheat flour, preferably Indian Attah, but almost anything will do. The last quarter is white bread flour. All purpose flour is fine, though given a choice I will head for a bread flour with its extra gluten.
I have a Hobart mixer named ‘Hob’, since none of the non-commercial mixers have the mixing moxie to stand up to the heavy labor of bread making. Actually let’s be honest, I have burned out a succession of Kitchenaids on cakes and cookies (I knew better than to even attempt kneading bread with a Kitchenaid.) I really do try to take care of my machines, never to ‘horse’ them or force them. But even the big Kitchenaid is not a professional piece of equipment, in my opinion. Hobart is the source of the Kitchenaid but the interior housing of the Kitchenaid motor is liable to cracking.
For those of you who have been reading this blog, you know I’m serious about hosting large parties, and working with massive amounts of ingredients. Wedding cakes for a hundred fifty guests, that sort of thing. The Hobart is up to my lifestyle. Before I had one, all yeast doughs were mixed and kneaded by hand. This makes for good shoulder muscles, by the way. I can mix a dough in fifteen minutes without my Hob.
I throw in about two to three cups of warm water (not hot, or it will kill the yeast,) a scant tablespoon of yeast, 3/4 teaspoons of sea salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, optional dollop of honey, five cups of flour and put the kneading hook on low until it’s all mixed. No, I don’t bother to check my yeast– I cook so often that I know already that my yeast is alive!
Look at the dough, touch it with a dry finger tip. If it clings to your skin and doesn’t rub off easily, slowly add another cup of flour, any kind of flour, while running the machine or kneading by hand. If doing this by hand, have it out on your counter for the kneading process.. If still sticky, add more flour and knead more But if there is an elastic resilience to it and it doesn’t adhere longingly to your finger, unplug your mixer, take off the dough hook and turn the bowl on to whatever surface you use for kneading, if you’re not already there. Keep your flour duster close to hand. The dough should be a little sticky, but it should be possible to rub off your fingers. Knead it and slap it on the counter for fun, adding a little flour when it starts to come apart and cling. Five minutes, possibly eight. Let rest under a clean tea towel.
Now in my kitchen when I had the counter re-tiled ten years ago, I chose square tiles, big enough to roll out a whole pie crust on or knead bread dough on. Most kitchen designers make the error of planning little tiles, four by fours, for example, for their counters. If you can stop them from doing that to your kitchen, do it. Big tiles mean far less upkeep, a pleasantly simple aesthetic and no horrid bits of grout grunge in your kneaded doughs.
You can let the dough proof (or rise) for an hour or up to two, under the tea towel before you shape it. But if time presses, just form your loaf without bothering with that extra wait. The bread texture will be coarser, but it will still taste good. Leave your shaped loaf in its greased pan to rise between an hour and two and when it retains the impression of a finger poke, bake it in a preheated oven at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it sounds hollow when rapped with a knuckle. I find I get my best rise when I roll the dough. So make a flattened rectangle once you have kneaded your dough, and roll it up firmly before fitting it into your baking pan to rise, covered with a tea towel.
If you do the slower method and let the dough rise for an hour or so before progressing to the shaping, knead it down before your shaping of the loaf. When shaped, let the loaf rise until the dough retains the indentation of a poking finger. Then bake, and test doneness by rapping on the crust as above.
Let the loaf sit about five to ten minutes before turning it out of its greased pan; it should come out easily.
If you want a fast lunch, try pan bread. Take a double fistful of dough and pat it into a rough circle, to fit the bottom of a middle sized cast iron pan.. Heat that pan, well-oiled, on the stovetop and when hot, place the dough in the pan. (Sometimes to be dramatic, I throw it. That’s fun.) Turn the burner down to the low setting and cover with any lid that fits. Leave to rise and cook in this improvised oven for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the upper surface is no longer sticky. Then flip it over and continue to cook five to ten minutes more, until lightly browned on the bottom. Eat hot with butter, or with sauteed vinegared red peppers and onions with fresh goat cheese or pickled artichoke hearts or… whatever you like. I’ve been known to sit down with peanut butter and this hot bread for a fast lunch. It tastes different from oven baked bread, and while it can be a little sticky inside, or dense, it has a lovely immediacy and nuttiness.
Want a particularly spongy soft interior texture in your bread? Take the water from boiling potatoes and use some in your warm water when you make the dough. That will give you a softer resilient crumb in the final loaf. Love a soft crust surface? Rub butter over or spray the crust with oil when you take it baked, from the oven.
And yes, before you ask, you can stretch and roll this dough out to make a pizza if you like, but if you’re doing that, crank your oven to 500 degrees, do a full pre-heat, don’t overload the crust with sauce and additions, and do use a perforated round pan for a crisper crust… I recommend caramelized onions and gorgonzola with a crumble of walnuts and rosemary across the surface.