Sunday, March 29, 2020

Breads and Sunshine. Bread for First-Time Bread Makers. March 2020, New York City.

In all the years of cooking -- decades actually -- there has been nothing that gave me more joy, more grounding, encouragement and comfort, and the sense of achievement, than making breads and soups.

Breads and soups. Soups and breads. Especially breads.

The feeling of sticky dough clinging to my fingers, the speckles of flour tickling my skin, the aroma of yeast, slightly musky, yet so full of life, and most of all, that special moment when the finished loaf comes out of the oven and the scent of a freshly baked bread overtakes the kitchen, warm and snugly, like a blanket, like your favorite sweater or your boyfriend’s old baggy fleece.

Just like that precious hour before the sunset, when the air is pure liquid gold for a while, until the sun disappears and the sky bursts into a flame of colors, and the stars light up like little lanterns, sending upon us a downpour of small miracles.

We all need miracles these days.

"What do you miss the most?" asked my friend Amy the other day. I spend hours on my phone, Zoom, Messenger and apps alike, checking up on loved ones around the world, making sure that they are well, making sure that they are safe. We exchange tips for securing a bottle of bleach, have virtual coffees -- and an occasional martini -- review books and movies, and try to keep sane.

"I miss crisp air over the Hudson river," I said. Everyone craves the river these days. All of a sudden it has become the most visited spot in the neighborhood, and it's hard to keep distance, so I now walk to other parts of the city. "I miss having flowers in the apartment, and fresh produce from the farmers market. And I miss roasted chicken from the supermarket." Not sure where that came from, because I don't even like chicken.

"I miss fresh bread," said Amy.
"You should try making some," I suggested.
"It's easy for you to say that," she said grimly. "I wish I could, but you know me. I have two left feet in the kitchen."

Perhaps Amy is right. For the non-cooks among us, breads recipes can be scary and difficult. Too long too parse and follow. So much proofing and rising and shaping and scoring -- I get it. But you know guys, there are simple breads too. Really, really simple breads. Those made for Amy and the very-first-time-bread-bakers-who-are-just-too-afraid-to-start. Sort of like "piece of cake breads", you know...

So, I sat down and wrote a recipe for a bread that needs no fancy ingredients, no special hardware other than a baking sheet, and takes only two hours start to finish. It's a basic sandwich bread, soft and fluffy. It's not a sourdough, baguette, or ciabatta extravaganza. It's not artisan, or whatever they call it these days. It's not a show-off bread, but a bread that makes you feel good about your first achievement. And it's sweet, moist, and it smells wonderful, like homecoming. It tastes like homecoming too. It's made for you, the first time bakers. A perfect teaser, because now it's the perfect time to start.

Be well. Stay safe.

Sandwich Bread for the First Time Bakers

You have two options here; you can use butter for a sweet buttery flavor of traditional white sandwich bread. Or you can use olive oil, for a more rustic, robust taste.

* 14 oz (2 cups) all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur)
* 2 generous teaspoons of instant yeast (I used SAF Red)
* 5 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
* 1 1/2 cups whole milk (at room temperature, 70-90F)
* 1 1/2 tablespoons honey (if you do not have honey, use sugar) 

* 1 1/2 teaspoon salt


* baking sheet
* parchment paper

An hour or two before baking, bring milk to room temperature.

If you are using butter, melt it over very low heat.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour and yeast. Mix well so that yeast is dispersed throughout the flour. Add the butter (or olive oil). Add the water, honey, and salt. Using a mixer with a dough hook, knead on low speed until the flour is moistened. Raise the speed to medium-low and knead for another 8-10 minutes. You should have smooth and shiny dough that is barely sticky to the touch. (If you do not have mixer, mix the ingredients in the bowl with your hand first and knead in the bowl until they just come together. Scrape the dough onto the kitchen counter and knead with your hands for about 8-10 minutes, until you have smooth, shiny and elastic dough that is barely sticking to your fingers.)

Place the dough into a bowl, cover with kitchen towel and let it rest for 20 minutes. While the dough is resting, line the baking sheet with parchment paper.

Turn the dough onto the kitchen counter and press gently with the palm of your hand to deflate it. (The dough should not stick to the counter, but if it does, sprinkle a little bit of flour over the countertop to prevent it from sticking.) Using your fingertips, spread the dough into a rectangle, about 7 inches by 5 inches. Slowly fold every side of the rectangle towards the center, until they all meet in the center, and you have a nice little round packet. Turn the packet so that the folded ends are facing bottom, and gently finish shaping the packet until it is perfectly round. It should be the size of medium grapefruit. Place the dough (folded side down) onto the baking sheet. Cover with kitchen towel and let it rise for about 60-75 minutes, until the ball has doubled in size.

Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425F (400F convection).

Place the baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the bread is the color of deep caramel. (If you have an instant-read thermometer, the bread should register 200F in the center.)

Take the bread out of the oven and let it cool before serving. (But we oh-so-very-much like it still warm, with a dollop of butter.) Enjoy.