Friday, September 12, 2014

*Easy* Italian Bread

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are" - Brillat Savarin

I must be bread. 

Nothing quite excites me like a good rustic crusty loaf of REAL bread. My eyes light up in an Italian restaurant every time a basket full of hot-out-of-the-oven goodness plops down on the table in front of me. When I don't feel like cooking, I'll pick up a fresh baguette on the way home and just dip it in some good olive oil, or spread some nice soft bleu cheese on it while it's warm. Ah, the wonders of good bread.

I've seen countless recipes of the "no-knead Dutch oven" variety floating around the internets lately, but upon further investigation, these look like they come out resembling a dense white bread, which is not what I am looking for. No, I want hard-crusted oblong and round loaves with a fluffy, bubbly interior. And I want to make it myself.

So, without further delay, I present to you my first attempt at homemade crusty bread. And I double-pinkie-promise that it's easy.

You will need: 
Patience (Start to finish, this recipe takes about 4 hours)
3 1/2 cups bread flour (may be labeled as "strong flour") + extra for kneading/dusting
1 tsp dry instant yeast
2 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 - 1 1/2 cups warm water (Tap water is fine, it should be "bath water" temperature. Not too hot!)
1 baking sheet OR pizza stone
1 metal or glass pan with 1" sides
1 large mixing bowl
Your hands

The Dough:
Mix the flour, dry yeast, and salt in a bowl.
Slowly add the warm water, stirring constantly (I used a regular spoon to mix, but this can also be done in a stand mixer with a bread hook. I have none, so I did it the old fashioned way.)
When the dough is "sticky" (should look like the photo above), stop adding water, dust the top with flour, cover with a tea towel and let sit.

Let it rise for two hours. Leave it alone. Go do something else.

Dividing the Dough:
Divide the gooey dough into 3 balls. To do this, dust some flour on your countertop or wooden cutting/baking board, and roll the balls in it so that they're less sticky. Cover again, and let rest for 15 minutes.

Kneading the Dough:
A lot of people think that this is the hardest stage. Well, it's not. This isn't pasta, so the kneading part isn't the most difficult. Actually, the difficult part is done (for me, that was the waiting).
Take each ball and knead 5-8 times. Basically, roll the heel of your hand into the center of the ball, fold it in half, turn 90 degrees, and repeat. Once you have kneaded all 3 balls, either leave them in a round shape, or form/roll/stretch them into a baguette-like shape. Cover again, and let rest 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 450 Farenheit (or 230 Celsius) with the baking pan inside, and the 1" deep pan below your baking pan on the lowest rack.
Score (slash) the tops of your bread balls/loaves a few times with a very sharp knife. If it is too stretchy and doesn't want to be scored, then use scissors and take a few shallow snips right in the middle. That's what I did for my first try, and it worked like a charm.

Get some hot water ready - about 3/4 cup. Once the oven is preheated, sprinkle a little flour onto the preheated pan (don't remove it from the oven, though! It will cool off too quickly) and plop your little dough balls onto it. Pour the hot water into the pan in the bottom of the oven, and quickly shut the door to trap the steam. This steam is what creates a really nice crust.
Bake for 25 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and let cool on a baking rack. You're done! Enjoy! Wasn't that easy???

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