Bika’s Daily Bread

8 Dec

If you’ve never baked before, it can be intimidating to look at a few basic ingredients and think “holy crap, I’m supposed to turn this into a loaf of bread? What am I, some sort of wizard?” Don’t be afraid to give it a try. The science of bread is flexible and even your first try can yield tasty goodness. As long as you follow the basics of a recipe you cannot fail (unless you kill the yeast, that is, but it’s really not hard to avoid that. Promise).

This is a basic recipe for a pair of small Italian-style loaves, or one very big one.

In a large mixing bowl, combine:
1 ⅓ cups warm water (tepid is fine, just keep it around 110 degrees or less so you don’t kill your yeast)
1 cup flour (I like bread flour, its higher gluten content gives bread a firm, chewy texture)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 package, or 2 tsp. active dry yeast

Let it sit for about five minutes. If the yeast is good and you didn’t kill it, the mixture will be bubbling quite nicely. Congratulations! It’s alive! (If it’s not, and your water wasn’t too hot, your yeast has expired. It has ceased to be. Buy some fresh yeast on your next trip to the store and try, try again.)

Stir in 3 more cups of flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to stir and turn it out on a clean counter to knead. Kneading stretches out the gluten strands in the dough, making it strong, springy and elastic. Without a good kneading, your bread dough won’t be strong or stretchy enough to hold the tiny CO₂ pockets created by the yeast. You may need to add more flour to this as you go along. Here’s a hint: if it’s really sticky, it needs more flour. Don’t know how to knead? Thank the interwebs for Wikipedia and YouTube:

After 8-10 minutes you should have a dough that feels smooth and springs back when you dent it with your finger. Put a teaspoon of olive oil in a large bowl then put the dough in it, rotating to coat the surface. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 45 minutes to an hour.

Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, then form it into two loaves. Place seam-side down on a baking sheet dusted liberally with cornmeal (so it doesn’t stick to the pan when you bake it), cover with a damp cloth, and let rise again until doubled, about 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix one egg and one tablespoon of water, and brush it onto the loaves. An egg wash makes your bread shiny and pretty! Leaving it plain and flour-dusted is also good, or you can just use water and sprinkle it with seeds. However you dress it, stick it in the oven carefully and let it bake for about 30 minutes. You’ll know they’re done if the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Cool the loaves on a rack to keep the bottoms crisp.

Don’t be scared. I make this and other breads several times a week and they never fail. Even the time I forgot to add the yeast until the end of the first rising, it was still salvageable! Just think about how it will taste, still warm and covered in melting butter.

Now that’s food porn.


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