Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Secret to Becoming Fat and Rich

First of all, props you for continuing to read this blog post after seeing that title. Either a) you're not afraid of standing out from the crowd or b) curiosity got the blog reader. Whether you're type A or type B, you will not regret your perseverance. Because at this point, I will share with you the best and cheapest recipe I have learned since I started this blog: the recipe for how to bake fresh artisan bread.

When I say it's the recipe for how to bake bread, I mean it's the recipe for how to make bread that several guinea pigs agreed--even after blind testing--tastes better than the bread at the bakery across the street from my apartment... the recipe for how to make bread that comes out of the oven steaming hot and can be served with olive oil... the recipe for how to make bread that can be transformed from French boule (boule means ball in French), to pecan encrusted cinnamon buns, to caramelized onion dinner rolls, to pizza crust or naan. Honestly, it's magic. And I'm imparting it on you... now.

I promise it's easy! Check out the recipe from "Mother Earth News" where I learned how to do this sorcery and learn how to use the recipe to make other types of bread.


1.5 packets (1.5 tablespoons) of yeast ($3.38)
6.5 cups unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour ($1.99)
1.5 tablespoons salt (the recipe calls for Kosher or sea salt, but I used table salt)
3 cups lukewarm water

The Grand Total:  $5.37 for at least 4 loaves of French boule (the dough can be refrigerated or frozen and baked at any time). To put that more concretely, it took 4 people with big appetites to finish off the 1 loaf you see above. Multiply that by 4 loaves and you have 16 servings at $0.34 per serving!


Mixing and Storing the Dough 

*It is best to do this at least 3 hours before you actually want to bake the bread, but you actually can do it up to 2 weeks in advance and store in the fridge (or as long as you want in advance and store in the freezer).

Heat the water to just a little warmer than body temperature (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit). Add yeast and salt to the water in a 5-quart bowl or, preferably, in a resealable, lidded container (not airtight — use container with gasket or lift a corner). Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve.

Mix in the flour by gently scooping it up, then leveling the top of the measuring cup with a knife; don’t pat down. Mix with a wooden spoon, a high-capacity food processor with dough attachment, or a heavy-duty stand mixer with dough hook, until uniformly moist.

If hand-mixing becomes too difficult, use very wet hands to press it together. Don’t knead! This step is done in a matter of minutes, and yields a wet dough loose enough to conform to the container.

Cover loosely. Do not use screw-topped jars, which could explode from trapped gases. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flatten on top), approximately two hours, depending on temperature. Longer rising times, up to about five hours, will not harm the result. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period. Refrigerated wet dough is less sticky and easier to work with than room-temperature dough. We recommend refrigerating the dough at least three hours before shaping a loaf. And relax! You don’t need to monitor doubling or tripling of volume as in traditional recipes.


On Baking Day

While the recipe recommends using a pizza peel (a long-handled board that helps slide doughs onto a hot stone for cooking), I used a metal casserole dish. Sprinkle whatever you use liberally with flour (or cornmeal, as the recipe recommends) to prevent it from sticking.

Sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour, then cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece with a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom so that it gets a little wider. Most of the dusting flour will fall off; it doesn’t need to be incorporated

Place the ball on the pizza peel or metal pan. Let it rest uncovered for about 40 minutes. Depending on the dough’s age, you may see little rise during this period; more rising will occur during baking.

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450 degrees with a baking stone on the middle rack (I didn't do this, but just used the metal dish I placed the dough on originally). Place an empty broiler tray (or another metal pan) for holding water on another shelf.

Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing, serrated knife to pass without sticking. Slash a 1⁄4-inch-deep cross, scallop or tick-tack-toe pattern into the top. This helps the bread expand during baking.

With a forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the baking stone. Quickly but carefully pour about a cup of hot water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is browned and firm to the touch. With wet dough, there’s little risk of drying out the interior, despite the dark crust. When you remove the loaf from the oven, it will audibly crackle, or “sing,” when initially exposed to room temperature air. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack, for best flavor, texture and slicing. The perfect crust may initially soften, but will firm up again when cooled.

Refrigerate the remaining dough in your lidded (not airtight) container and use it over the next two weeks: You’ll find that even one day’s storage improves the flavor and texture of your bread. This maturation continues over the two-week period. Cut off and shape loaves as you need them. The dough can also be frozen in 1-pound portions in an airtight container and defrosted overnight in the refrigerator prior to baking day.

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