the sunday project
with Karen Ralph
THE 3 Bs – BASIC BEAUTIFUL BREAD
Taking four basic ingredients and turning them into a loaf of aromatic bread is a type of transformative magic that never gets old. Making bread is fairly straightforward, but I’ve learned the hard way that the combination of flour, yeast, salt and water can be temperamental. Never underestimate dough’s sensitivity to its environment – indoor and outside temperature and humidity fluctuations affect both rise and texture. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, but you can make sure that your yeast or sourdough starter is active and your oven temperature is accurate. Bread-making is a skill honed through practice, repetition and getting a “feel” for the dough, literally, through handling, mixing and kneading it. If your first few loaves aren’t perfect, remember that the wonkiest home loaf is still better than anything you can buy. This recipe was my gateway into baking and it’s still a favourite. It also makes the best toast.
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Easy-Peasy Loaf 2-1/2 c. unbleached white flour *1/4 c. stone-ground rye flour 1 t. instant yeast 1-1/2 t. kosher salt *about 1-1/4 c. warm water
*You might have to add a couple more teaspoons of water, depending on the weather and the flour. I use unbleached all-purpose white flour, organic stoneground dark rye flour and instant dry yeast. If you omit the rye flour, make up the difference with unbleached white, but the rye flour adds a lovely, subtle nutty flavour. Mix the flours, yeast and salt, add the water and mix just until the dough is rough and sticky. Lightly dust your countertop or table with a tiny bit of flour so your dough won’t stick. (Dough doesn’t stick to my zinc countertop, so check your surface; you might not have to flour it.)
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Tip the dough out onto your countertop, scrape it all together with the side of your hand, and start kneading it by pushing with the heels of your hands. This keeps your fingers relatively clean and lets you really push the dough. Knead for about five minutes. The gluten will start to relax and you can shape it into a ball, put it in a clean bowl, and stretch plastic wrap over the bowl. Put it in a warm place, out of direct sunlight, for at least 8 hours, and up to 24 hours. I prefer to let the dough rise for about two hours, refrigerate it overnight and bring it to room temperature in the morning. Enzymes turn the flour starch into sugar that’s consumed by yeast. That yeast, in turn, creates alcohol and carbon dioxide, causing the dough to rise, forming little bubbles on the surface that emit a yeasty, beery odour. About two hours before you’re ready to bake, rub flour into one side of a cotton tea towel, unless you have a brotform or banneton proofing basket. These are wicker baskets in various shapes that are lined with linen or cotton and leave a wicker imprint on your dough, but a flour-dusted cloth in a bowl works just as well. Use enough flour to ensure that the dough doesn’t stick to the cloth. Scrape the stringy, sticky dough from the bowl and shape it by pulling it towards you repeatedly
and turning it occasionally. It will form a ball, and you might see bubbles starting to form under the dough’s skin. Carefully put your shaped loaf into the flour-dusted basket or cloth-lined bowl, with any seams on the bottom. The dough will flatten out as the gluten relaxes; the basket/bowl forces the dough to expand up instead of out. Let it rise for about two hours. When you’re ready to bake, place a heavy, enameled pot with a lid in the oven and heat it to 500°F. Lightly flour the dough so it won’t stick during baking, gently lift it into the hot pot, and score the surface. Put on the lid and bake it covered for 30 minutes and uncovered for 10-15 minutes, until it browns. When it’s done, carefully turn the loaf out of the pot (don’t burn yourself!) and let it cool on a wire rack. The resulting loaf will have a crunchy crust and chewy crumb with unevenly sized air bubbles. As is the case with any well-established art or craft, there are labour-saving techniques to breadmaking. One of them is “autolyze,” which Edward Behr, author of The Food & Wine of France, describes as self-relaxation. Water is added to the flour, the dough is given a quick mix, and then it’s covered with a towel and left for 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on how long it takes you to finish a glass of wine. During that time, the flour will absorb the water and gluten strands start to form. At that point, add the yeast and salt, knead until the dough isn’t sticky, and proceed as usual. Successful professional bakers produce consistently perfect loaves every day. As a home baker, I can be a dilettante, experimenting to my heart’s delight, but I always defer to French bread master Raymond Calvel, who was an expert on white flour. He said that too much kneading can lead to loss of colour, which leads to loss of flavour. Visually, I prefer the uneven crumb that results from shorter kneading times. A longer rise will enhance flavour, but occasionally I’ve shortened the rise time to six hours and skipped the shaping and proofing stage completely, scraping the dough from the bowl, shaping it into a rough round ball lightly dusted with flour, and baking it as usual. It has always emerged beautifully cracked, densely crumbed, chewy and aromatic.
Published on Dec 20, 2017