In honor of today being my birthday, I am posting my absolute favorite recipe of all time: french bread. In keeping with both my, and many of my friends’, ongoing efforts to cook from scratch, craft, draft, build, hammer, plant, knit, eat, think and dream for ourselves and with ourselves – with the help of friends and local artisans and experts, of course – I decided this summer that I would make my own bread too. I started shopping around for a breadmaker but came across Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Bible first. I thought, why not give the old elbow grease and oven method a try before spending a minor fortune on a machine that would do it for me.
I haven’t looked back. There is nothing better than fresh bread from the oven, made from scratch, molded by hand. And all it takes is a bowl, a whisk, an oven and a little muscle. Hensperger’s book has changed my entire thinking about cooking; it has really changed my life. These days, when I’ve had a bad day, all frustration is spewed out and soaked up into the yeasty, welcome embrace of my bread. I whisk that dough like I’m slashing through thick forest of problems. And then I kick its ass. I punch it and toss it and squeeze it until I simply don’t want to anymore. Because there’s no rules in bread. It’s done when you say it’s done. It’s done right when you like it. My bread and I reconcile during kneading, as my fingers get submerged in its warm and sticky embrace. And at the end of it all, there’s me, and there’s this springy little ball of purposeful dough standing ready for what may come.
When I’ve had a good day, you may spot me through my 3rd story window, prancing from room to room, whisking away at my bowl while jibberjabbing about my day to Tom or to another friend who’s stopped by. I’ve been known to dance to some tunes while kneading (it helps, trust me). Hensperger compares kneading to Tai Chi, but I don’t have the patience for all that. For me, it’s a goofy looking dance at best, but we all relax in our own ways.
The real joy of making bread is the act of using your hands, getting them dirty, covered in dough balls, physically contributing to the bread’s creation. You know that bread. You know what it’s made of and where it came from and how it was molded into what you’re now eating. It’s a little work and that work makes it so much more rewarding.
And to think, I almost bought the breadmaker…
2 cups warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1 1/2 tablespoons dry active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups bread flour
2 – 3 cups all-purpose flour
Sprinkling of cornmeal
Bubble: Pour water into a large bowl. Spread yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Whisk to combine. Let this mixture rise and bubble for 10-15 minutes, or until the surface appears foamy and bubbly.
Whisk: Add 2 cups bread flour and whisk until fully combined (3-5 minutes). Add remaining bread flour and all-purpose 1/2 cup at a time. Whisk thoroughly until fully combined before adding the next 1/2 cup. I usually use only 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, but continue adding flour until the dough just pulls away from the edges of the bowl.
Knead: Flip the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the bread for 5-10 minutes or until a springy ball of dough is formed. Add flour to hands and surface as required to prevent sticking.
Rise: Lightly oil a large bowl. Place dough in the oiled bowl, flipping the dough once to lightly cover the entire surface in oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. You can either place the bowl in the fridge overnight or place the dough at room temperature for 1 -2 hours*
Prep: If you have a pizza/bread stone, use it. If not, any old baking pan will do.** Preheat the oven to 450 and keep the pizza stone in the oven as it preheats so the stone is nice and hot when you start baking. This will allow the bottom of the bread to crisp evenly with the rest. As the oven preheats, flip the dough back out onto a lightly floured surface and break into 3 even pieces. If the dough seems too sticky, knead in additional flour as needed. Shape the three portions either into round balls for loaves or long ovals for baguettes. Cover with the plastic wrap and allow to rise as the oven preheats (approximately 30 minutes). As the bread rises and the oven preheats, whisk 1 egg into 1-2 tablespoons water in a small bowl.
Bake: Pull the stone from the oven and sprinkle the surface with cornmeal. This will prevent sticking and add a nice texture to the base of the bread. Place the 3 loaves/baguettes onto the stone. Cut a shallow “x” into the top of each loaf or slice 3 shallow lines across the top of the baguette. Glaze the outside of the bread with the egg/water mixture. This will create a crispy and shiny crust. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees and spray or flick a little water into the oven. Again, this will help create a crispy crust. Then place the stone with bread into the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes (or until the crust reaches the desired crispness and color).
Cool: Pull the bread off the stone as it will remain hot for quite a while. At this point, most good cooks would suggest allowing the bread to cool, but let’s be serious, the bread is best when it’s hot out of the oven. I can rarely resist breaking of a piece to try while it is hot enough to melt a little olive oil, cheese or butter. However, for storage purposes, you will want to let it cool before placing it in a bag on your counter. The bread usually lasts 2-3 days at room temperature.
Adapted from the French Bread recipe in Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Bible
* I have found that the bread turns out best if you can allow it to rise for 1-2 hours at room temperature, press the bread back into the bowl, then allow it to rise for another 1 hour after that. However, since every day can’t be Sunday and seriously, who has a spare 3 hours after work, before night classes and between drinks with friends? I usually use the overnight method and it still turns out just fine.
**I strongly recommend investing in a stone (or asking for one for your birthday or stealing one from you parents’ gigantic, awesome collection of long-unused kitchen gear, which is clearly what Tom and I have done) because it simply bakes everything better. Every kind of bread and pizza simply turns out better on a stone. And it keeps your food warm for quite a while after you’ve pulled it out of the oven.