When I have time on my hands and am seeking some comfort in my day, baking seems to always find its way onto my list of to-dos which is the case for a lot of people it seems.
My most recent endeavor to bake began with a Home Economics 101 lesson for one of my six- year-olds in an attempt to make bread. Simple, honest, white bread because with butter and honey there is almost nothing better. Ingredients at the ready, I hunted for the yeast at the back of the fridge and thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember the last time I used this’ - not a good sign when it comes to yeast! Sure enough, the yeast had seen its way through a house move two years ago and the birth of my twin girls more than five years ago! Embarrassing, but I think that was the last real time I baked bread for comfort.
To the store I went to buy a gallon of milk and and to find that flour and yeast were gone from the shelves! Crisis. You would think it was as critical to my existence as water as I began my hunt to ensure I could bake until my heart was content for the next month or more. When I finally found what I was looking for at another store, I bought armloads. I don’t consider it hoarding because there was variety in my flour procurement- bread flour, cake flour, whole wheat flour and good old all-purpose white flour. When I arrived home my children gasped thinking of all the play-doh they could make. I gasped thinking, ‘you can use the old smelly stuff at the back of the pantry for that’…and they did!
Now with flour and yeast not set to expire until the end of this year, I was ready to bake. The rest is really not as interesting as the road to get there, reminding me that life really is about the journey and not the destination. Baking bread allowed us to punch, roll, and knead our way to goodness that was to be enjoyed at the end of a long day, because making bread takes time… and a lot of it.
I used a King Arthur Flour recipe because I love the company and their flour, and while they are a Vermont-based company now, they have Boston roots, like Caskata, for almost two hundred years! Read about the company's history while you wait for your dough to rise because they offer a delightful history of American baking as part of their story. They've got your flour, #wevegotyourplates
4 1/2 to 5 cups (542g to 600g) King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
1 tablespoon (11g) sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons table salt (not kosher)
1 2/3 cups (379g) water, lukewarm (90°F to 110°F)
cornmeal, for coating the pan
Weigh your flour; or measure it by gently spooning it into a cup, then sweeping off any excess.
1 Stir together all of the ingredients (except the cornmeal) in a large bowl, starting with 4 1/2 cups of the flour. Use a sturdy spoon, or your stand mixer equipped with the beater paddle. Mix until everything comes together in a rough, shaggy mass of dough.
2 If you’re kneading the dough by hand, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, using some of the additional 1/2 cup of flour called for. Fold the far edge of the dough back over on itself towards you, then press it away from you with the heels of your hands. Rotate the dough 90°. Repeat this fold-press-rotate process with a rhythmic, rocking motion for about 6 minutes. When fully kneaded, the dough will be bouncy and smooth.
3 If you’re using your stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and knead the dough at medium speed for about 7 minutes, until it’s smooth, elastic, and feels a bit bouncy. If the dough doesn’t form a ball that clears the sides of the bowl, sprinkle in just enough of the additional flour to make this happen.
4 Place the dough in a bowl that’s been lightly greased with vegetable oil or cooking spray; the bowl you started with is fine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or another airtight cover, and let the dough rise at room temperature until it's doubled in size, about 1 to 2 hours. If your kitchen is particularly cold (below 65°F), place the bowl of dough in your turned-off oven with the oven light on.
5 Gently deflate the dough and cut it in half. Pat each half into a rough 6” x 8” oval.
6 Working with one piece of dough at a time, grab a short side and fold the dough like a business letter (one short side into the center, the other short side over it). Use the heel of your hand to press the open edge of the “letter” closed. Gently pat and roll the dough into a log about 10” long. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough.
7 Place the loaves, seam-side down, on a baking sheet (lined with parchment if desired). Sprinkle the pan (or parchment) generously with cornmeal; this will keep the bread from sticking and give it a crunchy bottom crust.
8 Let the loaves rise, lightly covered with greased plastic wrap, for 45 minutes. They should become nicely puffy. Gently poke your index finger into the side of one of the loaves; if the indentation remains, your bread is ready to bake.
9 Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 450°F.
10 For extra-crusty crust and a great rise, add steam to your oven as follows: While the oven is preheating, place an empty cast-iron frying pan on the lowest rack. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in the microwave or on the stovetop.
11 When your bread is risen, use a sieve to dust the loaves with a thin coat of flour. Then make three or four 1/2” deep diagonal slashes in each loaf; these slashes will help the bread rise evenly as it bakes. Place the bread in the oven and pour the boiling water into the frying pan below. Quickly shut the oven door. Wear good oven mitts during this process to shield your hands and arms from the steam.
12 Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and a loaf sounds hollow to the touch when you tap it on the bottom. The interior temperature of the bread should register at least 190°F on a digital thermometer.
13 Turn the oven off, crack the door open, and allow the bread to remain inside for 5 additional minutes; this helps keep the crust crisp. Remove the bread from the oven and cool it on a rack. It’s best not to cut into the bread until it’s cooled down a bit; cutting into hot bread can negatively affect its texture.
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