"…thinking like a baker…means thinking formulaically and structurally and then baking by an elusive quality called feel, not just blindly following a recipe without knowing the reasons behind certain steps."
~Peter Reinhart, “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”
While visiting my parents for Christmas last year, my aunt taught me and my boyfriend how to make bread from scratch. Without a machine. We instantly fell in love with the process. The nerve-wracking delicateness of the yeast, the total upper body workout you get from kneading, and of course the way the whole house smells like fresh-baked, yeasty, grainy goodness for the whole day. We have been baking our own bread since.
We use organic flour, yeast and butter, and local honey from the farmers’ market to make the only recipe we know: honey whole-wheat sandwich loaves. Since we use premium ingredients, we don’t save much money per loaf. However, it tastes so much better than store bought bread, and most importantly to us, we know e.x.a.c.t.l.y. what’s in our bread. We get a little drunk on the power—controlling the ingredients and the quality of our food—but we are limited in our bread-baking abilities.
Fortunately, my friend Kristin, who makes the most amazing pizza crust I’ve ever tasted, agreed to share her ultimate bread recipe with me. Originally printed in the New York Times on November 8, 2006, journalist Mark Bittman revised the hit recipe to require less rising time by adding more yeast, and that is the version we made. Kristin uses it for everything from pizza to sandwich bread to a crusty round for tearing off and dipping in oil (or smearing with butter, if you want to be real about it).
We spent a cold-but-sunny Saturday afternoon in her kitchen, playing with dough. We made a batch for bread that I could take with me, and a batch she could use for pizza (she added cornmeal to make a deep-dish version). No matter its destined form, the recipe is the same, and surprisingly basic: flour, water, yeast, and salt. In her expertise, Kristin uses heaping amounts of each dry ingredient measurement, and adds ½ the water first, then only as much water from that point forward as it needs to make the dough come clean away from the side of the bowl—but not so much that it’s impossibly sticky.
Let it rise for up to 4 hours. We sat our bowls in the sun because the kitchen was a little chilly, and it rose an adequate amount in 3 hours’ time. The next part is where this recipe jumps the normal bread-baking tracks. You put a pot and the lid in the oven and preheat the whole shebang to 450°. Then you form the dough slightly, coat it with olive oil, and place it in the pot.
To back up for a moment, this whole hot-pot step is where you can decide which form you want this dough to take. For pizza, you would roll out the risen dough, let it rest on a bed of cornmeal, top it, and place it on a preheated pizza stone. For smaller loaves, you would form the dough and place it in a preheated, rectangular metal baking pan and perhaps use a cookie sheet for the lid. You can get creative and make this dough into any shape you need.
But back to my round loaf… After baking at 450° for 30 minutes, you remove the lid and let it bake another 15 minutes uncovered. And that’s it! Perfect white bread.
Lucky for me, I got to stick around for some free smells after my bread was done and Kristin made her amazing pizza sauce for her deep-dish cornmeal crust pizza. She even taught me how to make the sauce. But that recipe will have to wait for when I attempt to make pizza with my newfound dough skills.