We were threatened with freezing rain turning to sleet turning to snow. Originally, it was to start on Friday, then Saturday morning, then Saturday afternoon, and then it finally tiptoed in Saturday night. And it hung around, doing just what the weather man said it would do, finally finishing sometime in the night last night with close to five inches of snow on top of the sleet on top of the ice.
You know what I do when we have weather like that? I bake.
With as many snow days as we have had, it has given me the chance to perfect Italian bread.
I found the original recipe on Pinterest, and it had very complicated instructions. I don't do complicated. I like to think it's because I am efficient rather than lazy, but you can draw your own conclusion. I will say that if you aren't as
lazy efficient as I am, you are welcome to use a heavy mixer (that means Kitchen Aid) to mix your dough or, God forbid, a spoon. But if you are a marvel of efficiency, you will pull out the bread machine you have stuffed into a cabinet, dust it off, and utilize that "dough" setting.
2 cups water
2-1/2 tsp. salt
1 T. brown sugar
2 T. olive oil
5 - 5-1/2 c. bread flour*
1 pkg. yeast (or 2-1/4 tsp. if you buy it in bulk, which I do)
1 egg, beaten
In the pan of the bread machine (and check your manufacturer's instructions, but for the three different bread machines I have used, all of them have had you layer the ingredients the same way), pour in the water and add the salt, brown sugar, and oil (note: yeast and salt don't like each other and must be kept separated until they are ready to play nicely with each other). Add 5 cups of bread flour next and make a little well in the top so it looks like a volcano, then pretend you are sacrificing a virgin in the volcano by pouring the yeast there (come on, have a little fun with your baking). Set the pan into the machine, set it for "dough" and watch it do all the hard work.
Let's talk about flour. See the little * next to the word bread flour? Bread flour has a high gluten content. Gluten is the protein that helps yeast to stretch and rise. All purpose flour, which is what most of us have around, has less gluten. It works better for cookies and cakes and quick breads. Will it work for this recipe? Sure. But you will get a more tender crumb with the bread flour. Which is available at the grocery store, right next to the other stuff. If you are a little bit crazy, you might buy a 25 pound sack of bread flour at Sam's Club, because it was only $7.76 compared to about $3.00 for the 5 pound sack in the grocery store, but you have to be pretty committed to baking a lot of bread (or crazy) to buy that much. I keep mine in our extra refrigerator in the basement....
Let's talk a little bit more about flour. And moisture. If you are baking bread on a humid day, you may need that extra half cup of flour called for in the recipe. For a dry day, 5 cups should be fine. I watch the bread machine do its magic for the first ten minutes or so, peeking in the lid (even though the directions say you should just look in through the little window, I can assure you that's not always sufficient) to see if the dough is too wet. When the dough is completely mixed and has formed a ball, it should be slightly tacky to the touch but not gooey. If it is, sprinkle in up to a half cup of additional flour. (See, you really have to open the hatch and give a little look-see to know these things. Just remember that sometimes it upsets the machine and makes it pause, so be quick about it.)
Once the bread machine has reached the rise stage, leave it alone to do just that. The entire dough cycle is usually about an hour and a half, with 30 minutes of mixing and kneading and an hour of rising. When the time's up, your dough should have risen to about the top of the pan, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, depending on the weather, the alignment of the stars, and the whims of the yeast gods.
|The speckles are herbs. I added 1 T. oregano, 1 T. basil,|
1 tsp. garlic powder and 1 tsp. onion powder to this batch.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Shape it slightly into a round and fold the sides in to make a loaf shape. Pinch the edges together, then flip it over, seam side down, onto your prepared pan.
|If you're really REALLY efficient, you plop the dough|
directly onto your baking pan and shape it there.
|Shaping the dough into a round.|
This is sideways. Yes, I know it's sideways.
Yes, I've tried about a dozen times to fix this.
Tilt your head. I give up.
|Fold one side into the middle.|
|Fold the other side in.|
Sideways again? I hadn't noticed....
|After pinching the seams, flip it|
over onto its belly to rise.
I SAID, TILT YOUR HEAD.
What prepared pan, you ask? A BIG one, because this sucker is going to grow. I use a jellyroll pan lined with a Silpat. If you don't own a Silpat, hasten to the nearest kitchenware store and buy a couple. You will wonder how you ever lived without it! You could also line your pan with aluminum foil and lightly spray it with cooking spray. If you're uppity like my brother, you will use parchment paper (bearing in mind that he is the one who bought my Silpats for me, although now they are too bourgeois for him). Whatever you choose, arrange that dough baby on the pan and cover it with either a lint-free kitchen towel or a piece of plastic wrap that has been lightly sprayed with cooking spray (my preferred method) and leave it in a warmish place to rise for about an hour.
|I SAID it would grow exponentially. Believe me now?|
When you return to your dough baby after an hour or so, you will see that it has, indeed, grown exponentially. Turn on the oven to 425° and make sure your oven rack is in the middle of the oven. Using a pastry brush, preferably a silicone one, because they are gentler than a bristle one, brush the entire top and sides of the dough with the beaten egg (you will probably use about half of the egg mixture). Next, take a pair of kitchen shears or a sharp knife and score the top of the dough several times, which allows it to expand while baking without splitting open wherever surface tension is greatest, and that could be along the side and not look so pretty. Then heave it into the oven.
|Snip, snip, snip. Brush, brush, brush.|
Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if you so desire.
If you want your bread to have a crispy crust, spray the bread with water about 15 minutes into baking. (If you have a kitten who likes to get on the kitchen counters, then you will already have a spray bottle of water at the ready.) Give it another spray in about 10 minutes. It should be looking beautiful and golden brown by now. After 30 minutes, take it out and stick a meat thermometer into its ribs, right in the middle of the loaf, and check the temperature. You want it to reach an internal temperature of 200°. If it's not there yet, pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes and test it again. Yes, you can use the same hole. Word of caution: steam will puff out of that hole like smoke from a locomotive, so be careful not to burn yourself.
|Isn't it BEAUTIFUL?|
When you've determined your bread is done, and I know this is going to be hard to do, but please resist, DO NOT CUT IT YET. If you do, first of all, you will surely burn yourself, because you can't cut it without holding onto it. And if you think holding it with a towel or oven mitt will solve THAT problem, you will find that you have just given yourself a DIFFERENT problem, which is that you have squashed your bread while trying to slice it (don't ask me how I know this). Another problem with cutting it too soon is you will end up with what my Great Aunt Ecie called "black bread," meaning the crumb,which is so hot and soft at this moment, will gum together, making it look doughy and giving it a dark look (really more grey than black, but you'll see what I mean if you don't listen to me and cut it too soon). Give it 15 or 20 minutes, at least, before cutting it, and I strongly urge you to use a heavy serrated knife for this.
|Look at that delicate crumb.|
Seriously, LOOK AT IT!!!
Spread your slice liberally with butter.
You can thank me later.