Why don't more people make their own bread? Are they afraid of baking, afraid of yeast or just too busy? I suspect it's the last reason. I find bread making to be the easiest, fastest and most rewarding goal in baking. With flour, water, yeast and salt, you can have a wonderful preservative-free loaf in just three hours, with no more than a half-hour of actual work -- less than 20 minutes if you use a food processor. It's a better bread than even some pricey artisanal loaves.
But even with that time frame, it can still be a challenge to fit this simple creative act into a busy life. Let's be realistic. Daily bread is out of the question for most families. But why not get back into this wonderful ritual by making a loaf or two on the weekends?
Here are some suggestions on how to make it work for you:
* Mix the dough sometime on Saturday, as late as 1 p.m., and it will be ready for dinner at 6.
* Refrigerate the dough until Sunday morning. Shape and bake it for Sunday dinner.
* Store the baked, cooled loaf in a paper bag and reheat it for Sunday dinner in a 350-degree oven for five to 10 minutes to crisp the crust and warm the crumb.
* Double the recipe. Slice the second loaf. Place the slices in a freezer-weight zipper-lock bag and freeze it for weekday lunches.
My favorite bread recipe produces a light, chewy loaf with a crisp crust and mellow wheaty flavor. It has been my signature loaf for as long as I can remember. It is the dough from which I shape free-form hearth breads, and I also use it for sandwich loaves, dinner rolls and hot dog and hamburger buns (with the addition of a little oil to soften the crust and crumb).
No Better Basic Bread
Make an 8-inch round loaf
or a 9-inch sandwich loaf
or 16 dinner rolls or 12 hot dog buns or 8 hamburger buns
If you use instant yeast (as I do in the recipe that follows) you don't have to "proof" the yeast first in warm water, a process that takes the yeast cells five to 10 minutes to bubble, an indication that the yeast is viable.
The addition of honey helps the crust turn brown.
3 cups minus 2 tablespoons bread flour or 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
11/4 teaspoons instant yeast (may use rapid rise, bread machine or any brand)
11/2 teaspoons sea salt
11/3 cups water, at room temperature
1 teaspoon mild honey, such as clover
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil (optional for soft crust for sandwich bread or buns), plus additional for the bowl
In a bowl, whisk together the bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour and yeast. Whisk in the salt. Stir in the water and honey and, if desired, the oil.
Using a standing mixer with the dough hook attachment or using your hands, knead the dough until smooth and springy (about 7 minutes by machine or 10 minutes by hand). The dough should be soft and just sticky enough to cling slightly to your fingers. If it is still very sticky, knead in a little additional flour. If it is too stiff, spray it with a little water and knead it. Shape the dough into a ball.
Lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and lightly spray or rub the top of the dough with additional oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour. (Gently stick a finger into the center of the dough; if the indentation remains once you've removed your finger, it should be ready.)
To refrigerate the bread and bake it the next day, use your hand to gently press down the dough. Place it in a large, oiled, resealable plastic storage bag, leaving a tiny bit unzipped for the forming gas to escape, and refrigerate the bread for up to 8 hours. Remove it to room temperature 1 hour before shaping.
When ready to bake, have ready a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or lightly sprinkled with cornmeal or flour. Place the dough on a very lightly floured counter and, using your fingertips, flatten the dough gently and shape it into a round ball or a football shape. Transfer it to the baking sheet, cover with an overturned large container or an oiled piece of plastic wrap and set aside to rise until the dough has almost doubled in size. (Gently press a finger into the center of the dough; if the depression fills in very slowly, it should be ready.)
While the dough is rising, adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it. Place a cast-iron skillet or a heavy baking sheet on the floor of the oven or on the rack. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees for at least 45 minutes.
Using a very sharp knife, cut one or more long, 1/4-inch-deep-slashes across the top of the dough. Mist the dough with water and quickly but gently place the baking sheet directly onto the hot stone or hot baking sheet on the rack.
Then immediately toss 3 to 4 ice cubes into the pan that is on the bottom of the oven, quickly shut the door and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees and continue to bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center will read about 210 degrees.) Halfway through baking, turn the pan around for even baking.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely or until just warm.
Seeded Add up to 3/4 cup of mixed seeds such as cracked flax, sesame, poppy, sunflower or pumpkin seeds to the flour mixture. (The sunflower and pumpkin seeds have the best flavor if toasted at 325 degrees until they are just beginning to color -- about 5 minutes.)
Sandwich Before shaping the dough, gently press it into a buttered loaf pan. It should come no more than 1/2 inch from the top of the pan. Trim any excess dough and bake it as rolls. (Use a scissors or knife; do not tear the dough.) Gently turn the dough back onto the work surface, roll or press the rest of the dough into a rectangle and, beginning at 1 long side, roll it up tightly, pinching the seam with your fingers to seal it. Place the roll, seam-side down, in the pan. Let it rise until almost doubled. Slash if desired. Bake the loaf at 375 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes. (The lower temperature forms a thicker crust, which supports the higher sides of the loaf.)
Per serving (based on 12): 170 calories, 4 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 292 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Rose Levy Beranbaum's most recent book is "The Bread Bible" (Norton, 2003). She last wrote for Food about pears.