I’ve made bread for a bunch of people this holiday season, and people are always amazed. Frankly, it’s not that hard to make good bread. Your first three or four loaves always come out weird, and there are some tricks to making loaves that look pretty, but mostly it’s sinning boldly that produces good bread.
At the moment, I’m using a version of Mark Bittman’s fastest yeast bread, which I usually double, as follows:
3 cups of white flour
3 cups of whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons honey or sugar
4 teaspoons of instant yeast (incidentally, buy it in bulk from a Whole Foods or co-op… not Fleishman’s)
2 teaspoons salt (Morton’s or fine granuled salt, not heavy sea salt or blocky salt)
2 cups coolish-tepid water
1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 – 1/2 cup something (flaxseed meal, cornmeal, oats, hempseed, etc.) [optional]
1. Combine the dry ingredients. Stir them together, so that the Add the water all at once, followed by the olive oil immediately. Mix them thoroughly in the bowl until you have a slightly sticky concoction that grabs your hands in worms or ropes.
2. Dump remaining flour and the lump of dough out onto a clean countertop. Knead the ball — push the ball flat with the base of the palms of your hands, and then fold the back half on to the front half. Give the ball a quarter turn, and repeat. Do this for 3-10 minutes until all the flour is worked into the ball. Add water or flour by the tablespoon if the mix seems either too dry or too wet. It shouldn’t be either, really, but there’s always the weather to consider when making bread.
3. Divide the dough in half. Shape each dough-mound into a dome-shape (called a boule) or a log-shape (called a batard). Boules cook better in this recipe, but batards have a Francophilic, phallic charm that’s hard to avoid. Work the seams of the boule or batard onto the underside, and place on a cookie sheet or pizza stone (I use a cookie sheet). Cover the bread dough with a damp towel, and put it in a warm place in the kitchen. This is important. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
4. Go do something else for 15-20 minutes. Don’t peek under the towel. This is also important.
5. Uncover the dough, which should be larger by a quarter to half again its original size. Brush the top of the dough with water, whisked egg yolk, or not as you please. Dust with coarse salt, sesame seeds or poppy seeds, as you please. Put the dough on its cookie sheet or pizza stone into the oven and cook for 15 minutes – no more! Turn the oven down to 350, and cook for another 30-40 minutes depending on how irregular your oven is. Mine is electric and relatively new, so it’s reliably 30 minutes every time. Let sit for 10-12 minutes cooling on a rack or on a non-hot surface in the kitchen after you take it out of the oven.
Sliced bread is a horrific invention which should not be visited upon homemade bread. Slice one piece at a time and eat it as appropriate to the number of guests. Enjoy!