Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bread Alone

I can't tell you how happy I am that the height of the anti-carb craze is behind us.

Man (and woman) may not live on bread alone, but life is pretty dreary without it.

There is some inexplicable pleasure in dipping a crusty loaf of Italian bread in a rich tomato sauce I can't even put into words. How can anyone resist spreading a garlicky hummus on pita, or creamy brie on spread on slices of a crunchy crusted bread? Those are moments that just make life better.

We've been eating bread for so long it's mentioned in the bible. If people could make bread all those eons ago without ovens that have a thermostat dial in their homes, than it should be something anyone can do today, right?

Then why don't more people make bread at home?

For some reason yeast is a scary thing for home bakers. I am so glad that culinary school helped me get over this fear. Now all I want to do a day off is make a few loaves of bread I can stick in the freezer and use for the weeks ahead. And the bread I make at home doesn't have high fructose corn syrup or half of the other ingredients that are in the loafs of bread sold on the supermarket shelves.

It helped to learn from one of the best bread makers in the country - Sim Cass, a founding baker at Balthazar- to get over my fear of making bread. I am here to tell you that making bread is one of the easiest things to do and one of the most satisfying. It doesn't require a store bought bread maker. And who wouldn't feel proud after making something of such basic sustenance.

So let me unlock the bread making mystery. It starts with Jeffrey Hamelman's "Bread" book. It has about 80 pages of introduction that explain the bread making process and recipes that are adapted for both the home cook and professional baker.

I haven't ventured past the first chapter yet, breads made with a pre-ferment. That simply means the night before you want to make bread, stir water flour and yeast together in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. It might look something like plaster, and creates a stick substances that is pain to clean off your spoon. But over night the magic happens: the yeast starts to do it's work. The next morning the mixture will have doubled in size and be filled with air bubbles - a sign that you have done it right.

Success -a very bubbly pre-ferment!

Here is an easy follow bread recipe that should only take a few hours the next morning and doesn't require much fancy handiwork to shape into loaves. Just remember your pre-ferment needs about 12-16 hours to mature before you start making your dough, so plan accordingly and you won't be trapped in the house all day waiting for it to rise (like I usually am because my preferments are never ready to go before noon).

Oh, wait, let me give you a few other tips first. The secret to bread's crispy crust? Professional ovens have a feature that steam inside the oven to create the crust. Sadly, that is a tough one to replicate, but Chef Sim advised to spray water from a bottle on the outside of the loaf before baking.

Bread is also also baked directly on the floor of the oven, not on racks. In a home oven the best way to replicate this is to place baking sheets in the oven as it preheats and cook the bread directly on the sheets. You can place a little corn meal to stop it from sticking.

Pain Rustique
Adapted from "Bread: A Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes"
Makes three loaves. Three hours prep time not including the pre-ferment made the night before

The Poolish (or pre-ferment)

1 pound or 3 5/8 cups high gluten bread flour
1 pound or two cups water
1/8 teaspoon instant dry yeast

Pour the water in a bowl, disperse the yeast on top of the water, add the flour and mix until smooth (it will look something like plaster). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 12-16 hours at about 70 degrees.

Get a good nights sleep!

The Dough:

1 pound high gluten bread flour
6.1 oz or 3/4 cup water
all the pre-ferment
.6 oz or 1 tablespoon salt
.17 oz or 1 1/2 tsp instant dry yeast

Add the pre-ferment, flour, and water in a mixing bowl and mix using a bread hook at first speed until it just comes together. Don't add the yeast and salt just yet! Let it rest, covered in plastic for 20-30 minutes. Then sprinkle the salt and yeast on top and mix on second speed for 1 1/2 - 2 minutes.

Bulk Fermentation
This is when you let the dough rest and rise. Let the dough sit in the bowl covered with plastic. Do laundry. Call some friends. Read a book. You have about 70 minutes while the yeast does it's work and you don't have to do very much anything. Just give the dough a few turns once after 25 minutes and again at 50 minutes (turn each side of the dough in toward the middle once, press firmly into the center and then flip over).
Dough resting in a lightly oiled bowl on my counter top

After 70 minutes divide the dough into three one pound two ounces sections (if you don't have a scale divide in three). Don't tear at the dough use a dough knife or regular knife. Place the pieces on a floured linen on a baking sheet, cover with plastic and let rest for another 20-25 minutes at 76 degrees. This is the final fermentation stage. A little humidity doesn't hurt at this point. In the winter I've turned on my shower (our bathroom is off of the kitchen) and let the kitchen get a little steamy.

At this point pre-heat the oven to 460 degrees with the baking sheets inside. When the dough is ready slash it with a razor across the center, spray with water, place on the baking sheets in the oven and bake for about 35 minutes, until it's nice and dark.

My bread right out of the oven - I am so proud!

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