Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Basic Hearth Bread

A few months ago I decided I wasn't going to buy bread anymore. If I wanted bread, I would have to make it myself. At that point, I had almost no breadmaking experience. I had made 2 or 3 loaves. I had bought Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible a few months before at a local used book store, with this idea in mind. It took a little while for me to summon up the confidence that I could make good bread, but after spending a lot of time just reading this book and other sources, learning about bread making, I decided I could handle it. Homemade bread just tastes better. I grew up eating my grandmother's homemade whole wheat bread almost exclusively. As a young child I spent hours watching her make bread, and sometimes she would give me a few scraps of dough to play with, which I would make into fun twists and shapes, sprinkling them with cinnamon and sugar. I was always so excited to see what they would look like when they came out of the oven. I was also fascinated by my grandmother's industrial sized mixer. I don't know how she got it, but it was fun to watch. I didn't realize until I asked her recently for her bread recipe that she used to make 10 or 12 loaves of bread at a time, enough to distribute to the whole family. When I decided to start making my own bread, this recipe for Basic Hearth Bread from The Bread Bible was the first recipe I tried, and it has become one of my staples. It has a wonderful chewy crumb and a crisp crust. I like to serve it with pasta and salads. It also makes good grilled cheese sandwiches and goes well with soup or any simple meal. I always bake it in a loaf pan instead of free-form, because it is my husband's favorite sandwich bread.

Time Schedule
Dough Starter (Sponge): minimum 1 hour, maximum 24 hours
Minimum Rising Time: about 3 hours
Oven Temperature: 475 degrees for 10 minutes, then 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes more

Dough Starter (Sponge):
bread flour - 1 cup (5.5 oz or 156 grams)
whole wheat flour or kamut flour - 1/4 cup (1.25 oz or 36 grams)
instant yeast - 3/8 teaspoon (1.25 grams)
honey - 1 1/4 teaspoons (9 grams)
water, at room temperature - 1 1/3 liquid cups (11.2 oz, 322 grams)
  • Make the sponge. In a mixer bowl or other large bowl, combine all of the above ingredients and whisk until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Sponge should be the constistency of a thick batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover and set aside.

Flour Mixture
bread flour - 1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (10.3 oz, 292 grams)
instant yeast - 1/2 teaspoon (1.6 grams)
salt - 1 1/2 teaspoons (0.4 oz, 10 grams)

  • Combine bread flour and yeast, whisking to mix. (Reserve 2 tablespoons of flour if mixing by hand) DO NOT ADD SALT YET! You will add it later :) Gently scoop flour mixture onto sponge to cover it completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to ferment for 1 hour at room temperature. Then refrigerate for 8-24 hours to allow for full flavor development (You may also let it ferment for 1-4 hours at room temperature and then proceed without the refrigeration part, but I find this makes for a long day of dabbling with bread, and the flavor won't be as good).
It will look like this - the sponge may bubble up through the flour mixture in some places, this is okay. THE NEXT DAY:
Remove mixture from the refrigerator 1 hour before you want to begin mixing it, if mixing by hand. I mix and knead all my bread by hand, so that is the info I will include here.
  • Add the salt and mix with a wooden spoon until the flour is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together, then scrape it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead for 5 minutes, to develop the gluten structure a little, adding as little of the reserved 2 tablespoons of flour as possible to keep it from sticking. It will be very sticky at this point. Cover it and allow it to rest for 20 minutes. Knead for another 5-10 minutes, until dough is very smooth and elastic. It should be barely tacky to the touch.
  • Place dough in a lightly oiled container, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise until doubled about 1 hour (ideally at 75-80 degrees F).
  • Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, press down into a rectangle and give it one business letter turn, round the edges, and return it to the oiled container. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise until doubled again, 45 minutes to 1 hour. It will fill the container fuller this time.
  • Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and press it down to flatten it slightly. Make a freeform round loaf if you desire or shape into a rectangular loaf and place it into a prepared loaf pan (lightly greased with cooking spray). The recipe calls for a 10x5 inch loaf pan, but I originally misread this and have been using a 9x5 inch pan, which seems to work fine for me. Lightly spray top of dough with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes, until doubled. The center of the loaf should rise 1 inch higher than the sides of the loaf pan. When the dough is pressed gently with a fingertip, the depression should fill in very slowly or not at all - then it is ready to bake!

Preheat oven to 475 degrees 1 hour before baking. Put an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it. Place a cast iron skillet or sheet pan on the floor of the oven before preheating. Slash the bread if desired. Mist the dough with water quickly set the pan on the baking sheet or stone. Toss 1/2 cup of ice cubes in the pan on the floor of the oven and immediately shut the oven door. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temp to 425 and continue baking for 20-30 minutes (it only takes 20 in my oven) or 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 200 degrees F). Turn the pan around halfway through for more even baking. Remove the bread from the oven, turn it out of the pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

I have given a condensed version here, but there is much more good information to be found in the book, including directions for using an electric mixer and so much more. The Bread Bible really is an excellent resource, although there are other bread books out there that are just as good I'm sure. I find something new and helpful in each new resource. One that really helped me a lot was The Fresh Loaf. This site has many wonderful posts with tips and recipes (and photos!) for making bread.

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