Don't Buy It, Bake It
I've written reams about the virtues of home-baked bread over that gummy, preservative-laden, bread-like substance you buy in the supermarket. So this isn't going to be another rant; just a recipe for the simplest, most delicious bread ever.
This recipe is for a “boule.” That's French for “ball,” and the recipe turns out a couple of very rustic loaves that resemble slightly squashed balls. Slice 'em up for fantastic sandwich bread, fabulous toast, or just to have some great, fresh bread on the table. I catered a luncheon for twenty-some people a little while back, and I put baskets of this bread on the tables along with some herbed olive oil for dipping and some soft butter for spreading. Not a single slice came back when we cleared the tables.
The best thing about this recipe – besides delicious bread – is the fact that you don't need a slew of special equipment to make it. Parchment paper and a baking stone produce the best results, but you can make do with just a baking sheet. And if you've got a mixer, food processor, or bread machine to make the dough, great. If not, you can make it by hand.
Here's what you'll need:
1 ½ cups of warm water (about 110° F)
1 ½ teaspoons instant dry yeast
3 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon diastatic malt powder (optional)
A few ingredient notes: 110° F is a good target temperature for working with yeast. If your water temp is below 100° your yeast will be sluggish to react and if you exceed 115° it'll croak. Use a thermometer if you've got one, otherwise just think “lukewarm.” If the water feels “cold” or “hot” to you, the wee yeasties will probably think so too.
Always use unbleached, unbromated flour. My preference is King Arthur. Potassium bromate is an additive you don't really need or want. Originally used as an “improver,” it has since been linked to cancer and banned almost everywhere – except, of course, in the U.S. Here, our watchdog/lapdog FDA has not actually banned the use of bromate, but since 1991 they have “encouraged” bakers not to use it. And “bleached” flour is just that: flour that has been bleached by the addition of a whitening agent, usually benzoyl peroxide or calcium peroxide. Again, it's an attempt to “improve” on nature, and you don't need it. And, again, it's banned in Europe but not in the U.S.
I call for Kosher salt here, but you can use common salt as well. In fact, I don't usually use Kosher salt in baking, but it seems to work well in this recipe. Just remember, common salt is “more salty” so only use about 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons in place of the tablespoon of Kosher salt. And don't use iodized salt if you can help it. Iodized salt is a holdover from an era when a lack of dietary iodine, especially among poorer classes, was a principle cause of goiter and other ailments. Regardless of economic status, everybody used salt, so health officials started recommending the addition of iodine to salt. It's not really necessary anymore, but iodized salt is still the most common salt in American kitchens. However, iodine and heat do not play well together. The high temperatures used in baking can cause iodine to break down, often leaving a slightly bitter or metallic taste. If you've ever had homemade bread or baked goods that tasted a little “off” – not enough to make you say “yuck” and throw them away, but just enough to make you go “hmmmm” – they were probably baked using iodized salt.
Finally, you're probably wondering what in the world “diastatic malt powder” is. If you don't have it, don't worry about it. Diastatic malt powder is a "secret ingredient" some bread bakers use to promote a strong rise, great texture, and a nice brown crust. The amylase enzyme in diastatic malt powder breaks down starches into sugars, thus helping with rise, crust and crumb texture in doughs, yielding a good, strong rise, great oven-spring, and a more tender final product. But as nice as it is to have (you can get it at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/diastatic-malt-powder-16-oz) you don't really need it to make great bread.
Okay. On to the method.
You don't have to proof instant yeast, but I usually do. Add it to ½ cup of the water and wait about five minutes until it gets foamy. (If it doesn't, it's dead and you need to start over with fresher yeast.)
In a large bowl, mix the flours, then add the oil and the diastatic malt (if using). Add the yeast mixture and the remaining water. Mix to incorporate. Allow the dough to rest (autolyse) for a few minutes and then add the salt last. (Salt has an effect on the enzymes in flour, as well as how the water affects gluten development and yeast activity. Letting the dough sit without salt allows for enzymes to do most of the gluten development work before you start actually kneading it, letting it form a developed dough very quickly.)
Mix to form a wet, rough dough and knead for about 5 minutes. You can do this in a mixer or machine, or you can do it by hand.
Place the dough in a lightly greased container, cover and allow to rise for about 2 hours. DO NOT punch it down. You want nice holes in the finished crumb and punching down the dough will push out all the air and will give the bread a denser texture.
Carefully remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface and dust it with a little flour to make it easier to handle. Divide it into two equal pieces (I weigh mine) and shape the pieces into rounds. Cover a peel with parchment paper. Place the formed rounds on the parchment covered peel, cover them with a slightly damp towel, and allow them to rest and rise for 40 to 60 minutes.
Position a baking stone on a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425°.
When the loaves have risen, make two slashes in the surface, about 1/2-inch deep, using either a baker's lame or a very sharp knife. Lightly dust the surface with flour and slide onto the baking stone. Mist the interior of the oven with water to create steam. (Alternately, you can place a metal pan or rimmed baking sheet in the bottom of the oven while it's preheating. After you place the bread on the stone, toss about ½ cup of ice into the pan to create the steam.)
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
This bread is so good that even when it turns out bad, it's still good. I recently had a run-in involving a couple of extra soft and sticky loaves and a dull knife. When I attempted to slash them, the knife hung up in the sticky dough and dragged through it without leaving a good cut. This, of course, deflated my perfectly risen dough and the resultant loaves looked more like naan on steroids than a nice puffy boule. But when I sliced into it, darn if the crumb and the flavor weren't still perfect. Which proves two things: 1) you need a really sharp knife to slash sticky dough and 2) it's almost impossible to screw up this recipe.
Now go forth and bake some real bread.