I'm starting to laugh at the Reverb10 prompts. Are they channeling me? Did some medium somewhere look at tea leaves and determine that THIS is what's on my mind today so thus they should write a writing prompt so that I can get it OFF my mind (because you know that I use the internet as my massive external storage location for my brain. Don't you?)
Today's prompt is asking us to reflect on something we've made recently.
I could use this space to whine about how I have this artist-like vision and an appreciation for beauty and art in the natural world, yet am completely incapabale of producing much of anything, not counting photographs, which I give 99% of the credit for to good equipment (and .5% to luck in lighting.)
Instead, it's a great time to re-pimp the bread recipe book I've been cooking from (to be fair I don't own the book yet but I expect it to be under the Christmas tree...)
The book is called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. There are other titles by the authors, but this is the one I've started with, and have effectively gotten my whole family addicted to fresh homemade bread. I bought a french bread today for the first time in a month or so and it was extremely disappointing. Didn't help that I bought the cheap grocery store's french bread rather than the good stuff from the Italian grocer just up the street, but it was a good lesson nonetheless.
So this is me, who is not known for baking precision, baking loaves of bread day after day in my own oven, and they come out looking beautiful and tasting devine.
You can't f this up, folks.
Mix up a batch of the dough following the helpful recipes on the authors' site. The basic recipe I use is flour (unbleached white), kosher salt (one of the reasons we like the recipe I think is because it's a little salty, which my whole family craves), water, and yeast. I use one cup of whole wheat flour these days, after tinkering a bit and trying out the whole wheat recipe (little dense/heavy for us, but I could tinker further with the basic whole wheat recipe, too.)
You let it sit in a huge bowl on the counter for a few hours, it takes over the universe. You then refrigerate the dough (hint: It's a thousand times easier to handle the dough cold, so mix up a batch on a Saturday morning, toss it in the fridge by early afternoon, then you still have time to make bread that evening. Total elapsed time commitment: 20 minutes MAX.)
In the fridge it does continue to rise, one of the biggest challenges is finding fridge space for the huge bowl or finding a big enough container. I'm using a 3qt iced tea jug at the recommendation of a friend, it takes great advantage of the vertical space on my top shelf in my fridge and JUST fits the basic (6.5 cups of flour) recipe.
About two hours before you want bread, you pull out your jug from the fridge, chop off a hunk (I grab with one hand and use scissors to chop with the other), shape it into a ball - not kneading, not rolling, just quickly pulling at the dough with your heavily floured hands until it forms a soft ball. You leave it to rest on a piece of parchment. An hour or so later, pre-heat the oven. I've tinkered with heat settings and have settled on 440F, the recipe says 450.
Use a pizza stone (didn't you get one as a wedding gift? We did and are finally using it on a regular basis!) on a middle rack, and put a roasting pan on a low rack.
Once the oven is hot, use a cookie sheet or other flat pan (the authors show using a pizza peel, which I neither have nor have the space for, a regular cookie sheet works fine) to transfer the bread dough from the counter to the oven.
Oh wait a sec - two very important things - first, dust the top of the bread with flour then use a VERY sharp serrated knife across the top in diagonal slashes or some artistic creation of your own imagination. Otherwise the dough will split and I gather Bad Things will result. The second important thing is to have a cup of very hot water handy. I personally use the "instant hot" out of the tap on my sink, which is about 200F, I think if I didn't do this I wouldn't get quite the nice steam effect I get. Microwaving a cup of water for a minute should get it nice and toasty if you live in the dark ages and don't have an instant hot tap on your sink, you poor thing.
You transfer the bread (on the parchment paper) onto the pizza stone in the oven, then quickly pour the hot water into the roasting pan on the bottom rack and close the oven. The water from the roasting pan creates steam in the oven and that steam is what gives the bread the awesome crispy golden crust.
It takes about 30 minutes to cook. You can pull out the bread about 5 minutes before the end and remove the parchment paper (it will curl up and get really fragile in the course of the cooking, so it's kind of messy) then put the loaf back on the stone to crisp up the bottom crust some. I don't do this all the time, as the bottom crust is usually just fine and I don't always have time to take off the paper, but it's worth experimenting to see what you like.
Then the ABSOLUTE HARDEST PART.
Let the loaf cool on a wire rack. All the way. We almost never succeed with this, as we're all a bunch of Gluten Addicts. But if you let it cool, the bread will be easier to slice. If not, well, you're taking your chances. Just transfer it to a cutting board, use that really sharp serrated knife, and realize if you're slicing hot hot bread it'll smush a little with the slicing.
So, that's what I've been making lately, and I have to say it's the most IMPRESSIVE looking thing I've ever made, and I make it on an almost daily basis now (not today, though, as I finished the last of the dough for last night's dinner.)
It looks like bread you've bought in a store, just gorgeous. You can do all kinds of fun things like wet the top and press seeds and nuts into the top, or make this cool red pepper thingy. And there are many different basic recipes, including a whole wheat one that I mentioned I'm still tinkering with, and a brioche one that I think I might have to try next if for no reason other than to make these amazing looking pull-apart rolls:
(image from artisanbreadinfive.com)
So this holiday season, I think I'll impress friends and relatives with actual home-made gifts of bread that came from my own kitchen. Then I'll pick up those people off the floor where they have fainted dead away.