I have found over the last several months that I really like making bread. I have a good quality bread maker and use it often, but there is also something about making it all yourself from scratch that I get real enjoyment out of. From the time the yeast begins to bloom and you get that great aroma to getting your hands into the dough and kneading away (don’t forget how great of a workout kneading dough for 10 minutes can be for you) to shaping the dough and smelling it baking in the oven to the time you cut into that first piece and see the steam rise from the loaf as you put some soft butter on the warm bread, it can all be quite wonderful. Needless to say I have tried a lot of different bread recipes in this time frame, but the one I always seem to go back to is this one from King Arthur Flour. King Arthur Flour has been a fantastic source for me for inspiration, baking products and recipes and this bread recipe has turned into my favorite. I make this one about every 10 days or so because it gives me two loaves of bread and it is better than anything you can find yourself buying at any grocery store. The best part about it? It is really easy to make yourself.
French-Style Country Bread
For the Starter:
1 cup cool to lukewarm water (90°F to 100°F)
1/2 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour or organic bread flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour
For the Dough:
all of the starter (above)
1 cup lukewarm water (100°F to 115°F)
3/4 teaspoon active dry or 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour or organic bread flour
1 1/2 to 2 1/4 teaspoons salt, to taste
To make the starter: Stir all of the starter ingredients together in a large bowl to make a thick, pudding-like mixture. Cover the starter with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 2 hours. For the best flavor, let the starter rest longer; overnight (up to 16 hours) is best. If you plan on making the dough in a bread machine, place the sponge ingredients in the bucket of your bread machine and turn the machine on for just a few seconds to mix the ingredients together. Turn the machine off and close the cover, then let the starter rest as directed above.
To make the dough: Stir down the starter with a spoon and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt. The dough will be a loose, messy mass. Let the dough rest for 12 to 15 minutes, then stir it again; it should become more cohesive and a bit smoother. The dough will handle better once it has had time for the flour to absorb the water while resting and relaxing. By using this method, you’ll tend to add less flour, and have much bigger holes in your finished bread.
Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, to make a soft dough, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container, cover the container with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until it has almost doubled in size (depending on the weather, this could be 1 to 2 hours). If you are going out, or if you prefer, let the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator. If your dough has been refrigerated, allow it to come to room temperature before shaping it. It will warm up and rise at the same time.
Deflate the dough gently, but don’t knock out all the air; this will create those “holes” so important to French bread. For one large loaf, form the dough into a round ball; for two loaves, divide the dough in half and shape into two balls.
Place a semolina or cornmeal-dusted piece of parchment paper onto a baking sheet. Gently place the ball(s) of dough on the baking sheet, seam-side down.
Cover the bread gently with lightly greased plastic wrap and let it rise until it is puffy and about 40% to 50% larger, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 475°F.
Slash or cross-hatch the bread with a sharp knife or lame. Dust the dough with a little flour. Spritz water into the oven with a clean plant mister, and place the bread in the oven. Reduce the heat to 425°F and spritz the oven with water every few minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking.
Bake the bread for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it’s a rich golden brown, and its interior temperature registers at least 190°F on a digital thermometer. The smaller loaves will bake more quickly, so keep your eyes on them.
Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack. Store the bread loosely wrapped in paper for a couple of days at room temperature; wrap it in plastic and freeze for longer storage.
If you are normally intimidated by the idea of making a starter or making your own bread, don’t be. This recipe makes things simple for you to do and you come out with bread that you will be proud to call your own. The crust of the bread comes out perfectly (spraying mist in the oven makes a big difference here) and the bread itself has the flavor, smell and look that is divine. The bread is great for sandwiches or to serve with any type of meal, makes great toast and is really great any time you want some. I typically leave one loaf out and freeze the other but I still find they are gone in about two weeks. I purchased a lame (pronounced lahm) from King Arthur so that I could score the bread and I am still learning and working with it, but you can create your own great looks and patterns on the bread with it (just be careful; they use razor blades and are incredibly sharp). You could certainly use your bread machine to do all of the kneading and the rise for you if you wanted to, but I love to do that part myself. It makes me feel like I am really creating something of my own. As I said, I make this recipe a lot and highly recommend it.
That’s all I have for today. Check back next time for another recipe. Until then, enjoy the rest of your day and enjoy your meal!