I did it. I LOAVED.
Like many writers, I obsessively reread what I’ve written once it’s published/posted looking for the stoopid spelling or grammatical error I know escaped my proofread. On my 7th or so reread of my last post I thought, “Screw you, Ali. If you decide bread baking is going to be difficult, it will be difficult. You know you can make those pitas, you have made those pitas, so why the frig would you spend time and precious flour on them when you can do something new? YOU HAVE NOT LOOKED HARD ENOUGH FOR A COMPATIBLE RECIPE. You must find a doable loaf. Google, my friend, get Sacagawea on the line and grab your canoe: We’re going to do some exploring.”
I spent the next hour looking for a compromise; a loaf recipe, that uses plain, active dry yeast, doesn’t require a paddle, and wouldn’t take more than twelve hours. And, voila: http://www.browneyedbaker.com/2008/08/11/italian-bread/. This recipe for Italian bread fit the bill. I really like the Brown Eyed Baker in general because she tends to provide a lot of work-arounds for the more specific or technical stuff, which is awesome.
Before I start in on my experience with the above recipe, let me tell you something about my relationship with Italian bread.
When my boyfriend and I lived in New Hampshire (2008-2009) we were both dirt poor, as opposed to just regular poor like we are now. I was finishing up college, working three part-time jobs to pay my rent, and James was working a thankless, longer-term temp job at a bank to pay his. We usually couldn’t afford to buy anything grandiose or fun, like tickets to the movies or miniature pony rides, but we had no choice but to buy food to sustain ourselves, so grocery shopping was always an occasion. It was date night of sorts, something we always did together. The classiest joint in town, Price Chopper, was open 24-7 so we could go as late as we wanted and spend as much time as we pleased wandering the aisles, digging through the giant wooden bins of ’10 for $10!’ deals, debating about which flavor of Rice-a-Roni we were least tired of.
The night always ended the same way; we would wander over to the bakery section and select a loaf of French or Italian bread (whichever, upon being squished, felt like it was fresher). On the ride back to town we would just tear that thing apart, stuffing our faces with pure, white carbs. Occasionally by some miracle it would still be warm, and we would emit additional muffled sounds of delight. James would be driving, and I would hold the diminishing loaf in front of his face so could he would rip a piece off, both to eat and so he could see the road. It wasn’t more than an eight minute drive, but by the time we parked there would be a mere crusty heel of bread left and we would both be speckled with crumbs from chest to crotch.
Whenever I see Italian bread in the grocery store now, I never fail to remember those brief and lovely trips when, for a few minutes, we poor, clueless kids were allowed to be absolute gluttons. It gives me good feelings, so I decided yes, this is my recipe for the week.
A few notes about the experience; it was time consuming, but not tremendously so. Do this on an afternoon where you don’t have a lot going on. The original recipe is for one loaf, but the Brown Eyed Baker said that the resulting loaf was huge and took up almost the entirety of her baking surface. I decided to make two loaves instead, but in retrospect I should have stuck with the one loaf because my cooking times were off. My photos reflect the two loaves, but learn from my mistakes and stick with one. That said, THIS RECIPE WILL MAKE A GARGANTUAN LOAF OF BREAD.
I’ve adapted the actual recipe to fit my ridiculous needs.
STUFF YOU’LL NEED:
2 cups warm water, divided. When I say ‘warm,’ I mean ‘warm’…too hot or cold will kill our yeasty friends.
1/4 teaspoon white sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
5 to 5 & 3/4 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 & 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg white
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, if ya want ‘em
Stand mixer with dough hook attachments
Spray bottle (if you don’t have a spray bottle, a shallow metal pan will work…those seem like two very different things, but just trust me)
STUFF YOU GOTTA DO:
Put 1/2 cup of your warm water in a small bowl and add the packet of yeast.
Give it a quick stir, add your ¼ teaspoon of white sugar, give it another stir, and then set aside. The yeast will nom on the sugar and puff up a bit, BUT NOT IF YOU’RE WATCHING. It needs privacy. Give it a rest while you measure out your dry ingredients.
In large mixer bowl combine 5 cups flour, brown sugar, and salt.
Check on your yeast. Is it kinda puffy looking? Good. Add it to the dry ingredients, along with the remaining cup and a half of warm water and the olive oil.
With dough hooks in place, put your mixer on its lowest setting and let the sucker do what it will for about 7 minutes. The dough should start to pull away from the sides of the bowl and make itself into a semi-ball. I had to stop the mixer a couple times and use a spatula to incorporate some dry ingredients that were being left behind into the ball.
Once the seven minutes is up, take the dough out of the mixer and knead it by hand on a floured surface for a couple minutes. I don’t know proper kneading technique, so I just kind of folded it over on itself over and over and occasionally tossed it into the air while saying the few words I know in Italian.
Lightly oil another bowl (I gave mine a spray of Pam). Plop your dough ball in the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, place somewhere relatively warm and go watch something on Netflix for an hour and half.
Take a look at your dough. Chances are it will have doubled in size. If it’s the same size, you should just give up and just go watch Netflix some more.
Put an inverted baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. That’ll be your baking surface, and you want it to be hot when the time comes. If you’re fancy and have a baking stone, use that instead.
NOTE: If you don’t have a spray bottle, which will be utilized later in the recipe, also put a metal pan/baking sheet on the very bottom rack of the oven at this point. This means you will one centrally located inverted baking sheet which will be your baking surface, and a second pan, right side up, down below.
Now here’s the fun part. Remove the plastic wrap and PUNCH THAT DOUGH! I mean it, take a few moments to take out all your aggression on that soft, puffy creature. I imagine it’s roughly what it would feel like to pummel Homer Simpson in the gut. Don’t go too nuts, but you do want to flatten that dough down.
Okay, now take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Shape it into a long oval, keeping the ends round. (This is where I divided my two into two parts, but don’t do that, I learned my lesson the hard way). When I was shaping my dough, my ends kept wanting to get pointy so that it looked like a giant joint.
Ensure that the shape is relatively tight overall; if there are creases in the dough, seal them up and smooth them out, or else the dough will want to unfurl once you get it in the oven.
Cover your dough with a tea towel or similar bit of kitchen textile. It is tired after being beaten and shaped and needs a half hour to rest.
I just realized that my above image looks like what a double amputee would see looking down at this legs after waking up in the hospital. Wow.
Anyway, you’re almost there, hooray! After the half-hour rest, your dough will have regained some of its size. Remember when I mentioned egg white in the ingredients? Here’s where that comes in. Beat the egg white like you don’t really want to (it just needs to be beaten a little bit) and brush it onto the dough. If you don’t have a marinade brush, you can dribble a little bit on there and gently gloss it evenly over the dough with your fingers. If you have sesame seeds, sprinkle those on top.
Now you get to be gently violent again. Take a super sharp knife and slash the dough lengthwise, about 1/4 inch deep (I did not slash my dough lengthwise; I thought for some reason that I needed to give it three little slashes, so don’t do what I did in the below picture – jut run the blade up the length of the loaf).
If you have a spray bottle, arm that thing with a little water, and spritz your eggy, slashed log of dough. Be generous with the spray, but don’t soak it. The water spritzing will ensure your loaf will have a brown, chewy crust.
NOTE: If you do not have a spray bottle, carefully pour a cup of water onto the metal pan you placed on the bottom rack earlier. This will create steam, which is an adequate substitute to the spray bottle method.
Maneuver your loaf onto the hot inverted baking sheet. Immediately close the oven. Set the timer for a whopping three minutes, then open the oven, spritz your loaf again with the spray bottle, and close the oven.
Repeat once more: Wait 3 minutes, then spritz. Here’s what my first loaf looked like just before my second in-oven spritz:
Let the bread bake for another 40 minutes or so (high altitude peeps might want to check it after 35 minutes). To check if it’s done, pick up the loaf and tap the bottom of it gently – I used the handle of a butter knife. This sounds weird, but you’re speaking the language of bread, saying “Yo, loaf! You done yet?” The bottom should be firm, and the loaf should sound hollow. Here’s what the bottom of my first loaf looked like:
And here’s the top!
Wait til it’s cool to slice it. This was, by far, the hardest part. The bread will be soft and chewy inside and will have a pleasantly tough outer crust. I recommend slathering it with butter. Or crush some garlic and herbs in olive oil, warm it up, add a drizzle of balsamic and a sprinkle of salt, and then use thick slices of bread as a sponge to soak it up.
Whatever you do with it, enjoy, my sweetest of reader. Enjoy.