Let them bake bread!

In Recipies on February 28, 2011 at 11:33 am


Now, THAT's bread!

“Food”, throughout most of human history, usually meant “bread”.  The food-laden table of today would be fantasy for our not-too-distant ancestors.  Wars were fought over bread supplies and revolutions fomented whenever bread was in short supply.  The wise monarch or emperor ensured that the regular folk had sufficient bread as a measure to keep the peace.



“Let them eat cake” probably did not seem clever from the depths of a basket at the end of a guillotine.


The bread of our ancestors was course and rough.  In lean years, sawdust would be added as a measure to ensure more bulk to the bread and make it more filling.  The “upper crust” was less likely to contain fragments of stone from the miller’s wheel; it commanded a higher price and was coveted by the wealthy.


The commoners ate peasant breads that would sop up watery soups and sauces and still retain a chewy consistency.  Ingredients for soups and sauces were costly and a frugal eater mopped every drop and drip from the bottom of his or her wooden bowl or plate.


Baguettes, Italian loaves, pitot, and Russian (white) breads fill my bill as peasant breads.  Why?   It may be because so many of my entrées are peasant faire and are best enjoyed with thick, crusty, chewy bread.


The closest to store-bought bread to be found in my home are loaves picked up from La Mie when their bakery sets up at the Downtown Farmer’s Market.  Another vendor offers challah (which they parenthetically label “egg bread”).  I have never tried their version.


There is something off-putting about loaves of challah displayed below a grinning cartoon pig…the vendor is also a BBQ stand.


To each his own, but I regard sliced, white bread sold in plastic bags as one of the more foul “advances” of modernity.  “Wonder” indeed!


Such bread is surely a great convenience, but bread baking need not be thought of as an all-consuming chore requiring the luxury of great expanses of “nothing to do” time.  Americans kill hours of time in front of televisions and computer screens.  What better time to bake loaves of wonderful-smelling bread.


I am amazed that bread baking is not more vigorously pursued.  Nothing beats the aroma of baking bread and there are few pleasures greater than breaking off a still-warm piece, slathering it with butter, and chewing it in absolute bliss.


Since Phyne Dyning is not about food snobbery, the Phyne Dyner encourages readers to pursue bread baking in any manner possible.  Bread from a bread machine is infinitely superior to store-bought loaves and my recipes are easily adapted to a bread machine.


Traditional bread baking is hardly labor-intensive.  I am a bit mystified when my guests gush, “Oh my!  You actually baked bread for tonight?”


Why not?  The amount of “active” time one spends in the bread baking process is around 30-45 minutes, at best.  The rest of the time is spent…waiting.  While my dough is rising, I clean up bowls and workspaces.  Then, when the bread is finished, there is very little cleanup do be done.


Baking bread is a bit like doing laundry.  In today’s world, the latter consists largely of dumping dirty clothing into a machine, tossing in some soap, and pushing a button.


Exhausting?  Hardly.


I do most of my bread baking in winter.  I get dozens of loaves of bread and “free” heat for the house.  Peasant breads are best baked at very high oven temperatures and the resulting waste heat is a virtual supplemental heat source.  And baking in a properly moist oven adds a bit of much-needed humidity to the room.


Baking 6-12 loaves at a time seems daunting.  What is not eaten immediately goes to the freezer.  The loaves thaw and warm wonderfully fresh (in 10-15 minutes) in a 375-degree oven.


Although we were recently teased with a few days of Spring-like weather, it is a sure bet that we are due for more snow and frigid days in Iowa…America’s Ukraine.


That gives you ample time to bake two of my staple breads and take advantage of the resulting “free” heat.


My favorites are French baguettes and my modified Italian bread.  These are crusty loaves that serve well alongside one-pot meals and soups.  They can be split, covered with oil, vegetables, feta, and herbs and broiled into light bruschetta.


Man has been baking bread for centuries without fancy mixers.  That said; a heavy-duty stand mixer with a bread hook takes a lot of the effort out of home bread making.  However, one piece of equipment is indispensable if you want a nice, cylindrical loaf: a baguette pan.  An instant-read thermometer is helpful when warming water to the right temperature for yeast budding.


Sure, the baguette pan is a worthwhile $20 piece of kitchen equipment.  But, then again, a loaf with a flat bottom is hardly a reason not to bake wonderfully aromatic homemade bread and part ways with store-bought loaves.


Let’s start with the French Baguette.


A French law dictates the ingredients allowed for the baguette (flour, water, salt, and yeast).  No other ingredients may be used and still be called a baguette.  The law was probably enacted by very rigid minded Germans who dropped by Paris for dinner and who usually stayed several years after the dessert course.


The baguette is the quintessential peasant bread.  It tends to be a dense loaf with a crust that can vary from “crunchy” to “barely chewable”.  Do not confuse the baguette with much softer French bread.  The baguette has been described by many Englishmen as, “an edible cricket bat”.


Its nature makes it an ideal accompaniment for the wonderful soups and stews we make during cool to colder months.


The ingredients are basic:


4 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp yeast

1 tsp salt

1 ½ C warm water (110F)

pinch of sugar (unauthorized by the French law)


The sugar helps the yeast get started.  Purists can substitute ½ tsp of flour for the sugar.  Water temperature is somewhat critical.  Too cool, and the yeast will not grow.  Too hot, and the yeast can be killed by the heat.


If desired, a couple of tablespoons of wheat germ can be added to the flour.


(FUN FACT: A cooking historian told me that bakers of old frequently mixed some saliva with a bit of flour before mixing in the yeast.  It seems a credible tale, as enzymes in saliva break down starches to form simple sugars that would nourish the yeast.  Try it with a saltine cracker.  Keep chewing the cracker long enough and it will begin to taste sugary.  Sure, the story has a bit of “ick” factor.  But remember, the bread is eventually baked at high temperature and would likely kill any germs from the cook’s saliva.)


Add the yeast and sugar to ¾ C of the warm water and set aside for at least 10 minutes (or until frothy).  Place the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly for about 2-5 minutes.  Thorough mixing of the flour and salt is critical.  Pockets of concentrated salinity (salt) will kill the yeast mixture and result in a flat loaf.  Pour the yeast/water/sugar mixture into the flour and allow it to incorporate using the bread hook.  Slowly add the remaining water until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.  When the dough no longer sticks to the side of the bowl, it is ready for kneading.


Lightly flour a kneading surface and your hands.  Knead the dough for about ten minutes.  If the dough is too dry, moisten your hands with a SMALL bit of water and knead to the proper consistency.  If the dough is too sticky, add a sprinkle of flour.  Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough inside.  Cover with a damp towel.  Put in a warm place to rise.


(Note:  When I am preparing the other items, I turn my oven to 200F.  When the dough is ready to rise, I turn off the oven and place the dough within.)


Allow to rise for 1-hour, or until doubled in size.


Punch down the dough and divide it into two equal portions.  Form each portion into a smooth ball and then roll each ball into a cylinder.  Place the cylinders on a lightly oiled baguette pan, re-cover, and return to the warm oven for 30-45 more minutes to rise.


Remove the pan from the oven.   Place the rack on the lower 1/3 and another rack just below it.  Place a shallow (metal) pan underneath, nearly filled with water.  Pre-heat the oven to 425F, according to an oven thermometer.


CAREFULLY open the oven door (there will be steam inside) and place the pan on the rack above the water pan.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Then CAREFULLY remove the pan of water.  Continue baking until the loaf is deeply golden and sounds hollow when thumped (about 5 minutes).  Cool on a wire rack.

Modified Italian Bread


I am sometimes (often) hard-pressed to tell the difference between commercially prepared Italian bread and commercially prepared French bread.


I suspect commercially prepared French bread is baked by Germans (or Il Duce’s Italians).


The Italians add a couple of tablespoons of (olive) oil to the French recipe and this gives the Italian loaf a bit more of an “open” internal structure.  This more open structure lends itself to soaking up thick sauces, whereas the closed structure of French bread lends itself to sopping up soups.  I modify the Italian method a bit further by adding a bit of milk, which will give the bread a slightly smoother texture and a bit softer crust.


The recipe is very similar to that for the baguette:


4 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar (or honey)

2 tsp yeast

2 TBS olive oil

¾ C milk (room temperature)

¾ C warm water (110F)


Refer to the section on baguette baking for more detail.  The following is a skeletonized version of the process for Italian loaves which is nearly identical to that for the baguette.


Mix the sugar (or honey), yeast, and warm water and set aside for 10-12 minutes.  Thoroughly mix the salt and flour as for the baguettes.  Stir in the olive oil.  When the yeast mixture is frothy, add it to the flour-salt mix using a dough hook.  Slowly add the milk.  Process with the dough hook until the dough ball no longer sticks to the sides of the mixing bowl.   The dough should be very smooth and elastic when ready to knead.  It will be noticeably smoother and less dense dough than for the baguette.


Create a warm oven as for the baguettes.  Knead the dough for about 5 minutes and place it in a lightly oiled bowl.  Cover with a damp cloth and place in the warm oven for 1-hour or until doubled in size.


Prepare two cylinders of dough and place them in the baguette pan as you did for the baguettes.  Cover, and allow to rise for an additional 30-45 minutes.  Remove while you prepare your 425F oven with the water pan in place.  Place the baguette pan on the rack above the water and bake for 25-30 minutes.  Remove the water pan and brush the tops of the loaves with a bit of milk.  Return to the oven for an additional 5 minutes until tops brown.


I generally bake bread one day per week.  It is a cooking activity that can be done while attending to other home chores, such as laundry.  The result can be frozen for later use, or enjoyed right out of the oven.


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