THERE are few things as deeply satisfying as pulling a loaf of freshly baked bread out of the oven. The profound earthy smell of grain and yeast, the rush of Promethean heat, the resplendent burnished crust -- it feels as if the ancient hearth is still alive and well in your 21st century kitchen. Or, if not the primordial fireside, maybe an early-morning Parisian boulangerie.
But unlike making croissants at dawn, baking your own bread is really quite easy. And the rewards are stunning: Hot, crusty loaves that you pull out of your oven just can’t be replicated any other way, even if you happen to have a good corner bakery close by.
This recipe is a simple one. It’s what I make when I want bread I can knock together quickly and vary at will -- I might make a plain batard, rosemary baguettes, a dozen currant rolls -- the possibilities are endless. No overnight rising, no three-day levain, no sourdough experiments: I save those for my long weekend homages to Nancy Silverton. This basic bread is so easy that you won’t even need the recipe after you make it a few times. Once you get the simple chemistry, it becomes second nature.
Start early in the morning for a late-morning baguette, maybe, or begin mid-afternoon if you want warm bread for dinner.
In a large bowl, mix warm water, dry yeast, a little sugar and a cup of flour. Let it sit for 10 minutes to make sure the yeast activates. (Though it’s rare for yeast not to activate, there’s nothing quite so tedious as watching a ball of dough remain inert for hours.)
After the yeast mixture begins to bubble, add your ingredients. The olive oil gives a little flavor dimension, plus a more pliant dough -- and one that won’t dry out quite so quickly as a dough made without any fat. Wheat germ adds depth of flavor and the nutrients that you would ordinarily get with whole wheat flour -- which this recipe doesn’t call for. That’s because dough made with unbleached all-purpose flour is lighter and more elastic than a whole wheat dough, and therefore easier to work with.
After you’ve mixed the dough for a few minutes to incorporate the ingredients -- you can do this with a spoon or spatula, or just use your hands -- add the salt. (Salt slows down fermentation and, added directly to yeast, can kill it.) You can also add flavorings such as herbs, roasted garlic or a sprinkle of fennel seeds and lemon peel at this point, if you want to jazz it up.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it’s light and elastic. And yes, you can do this in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. But kneading dough by hand is a remarkably therapeutic experience. It gives you time to reflect on your day, on the bread you’re making and why you’re making it in the first place. There’s also a Zen to it which is strangely, beautifully pleasurable.
You’ll need to add flour to your work surface as you knead, but resist the temptation to add it too fast. Incorporate it in increments of about a tablespoon -- or roughly what you can pick up with your fingertips. Decrease the amount you add as you get closer to the right texture, until you’re just lightly dusting the surface. (Like salt in food, it’s easier to put more in than take it out.) Once it’s elastic and pliant, test the dough to see if it’s ready. Poke a flour-coated finger in it -- if the dough bounces back, it’s done. Or try the “windowpane” method. Stretch a piece of dough between your fingers: If it tears easily, knead it some more.
Once you’re done kneading, form the dough into a ball and let it rise, covered. You can do this in your oven if your oven has a “proof” setting or can be reliably set very low (ideal proofing temperature is about 80 degrees), or on a countertop if your kitchen is warm. Go mow the lawn, read the paper, take a nap and dream Proustian bakery dreams.
This first rise is the most important, when much of the flavor and texture develops; it will take about an hour and a half -- until the dough has about doubled in size. The time required can vary depending on the temperature and your method of achieving it. Julia Child, for example, used to let hers rise in the back of her car while she went on errands.
After the first rise, punch down the dough and let it rise again, though for a shorter duration. Why a second rise? Because each rise further develops the complexity of the dough -- and thus the flavor and texture of your finished loaf of bread.
Next, form your dough into the shapes you want. Simplest is a batard, which is a long free-form loaf that rises simply on a baking sheet without any special pans. Or you could fashion a baguette, which both proofs and bakes in a perforated metal baguette pan.
Or try a boule, the classic French round that gets its gorgeous floured spirals from a banneton, the porous basket in which it rises. Or form the dough into a dozen rolls. Or get really creative and make a fougasse, slashing a flattened piece of dough and pulling the holes apart into interesting shapes.
With each shaped loaf, simply be sure to cover the bread for the final rise, called “proofing” (uncovered, the dough will form a light crust and not rise properly). At the last minute, dust your bread with flour and slash the top.
Slide your bread into the oven, and immediately spritz the sides of the oven with a spray bottle. This gives you the steam you need for a good crust. Do this again after five minutes, then let the bread bake. Rotate the bread once, about halfway through the baking, for color and even cooking, and resist the urge to open the oven doors any more than necessary: You want the heat and steam inside your oven, not out of it.
When the bread’s done, the crust should just be beginning to darken into a rich brown. Take it out, let it cool on a rack, and resist the urge to cut into it right away. Like a steak that needs to rest after you pull it from a saute pan, a just-baked loaf of bread needs some downtime.
So cool your heels as well as your bread. Brew a pot of espresso, find your blackberry jam, close your eyes and breathe in the smell emanating gloriously from your kitchen.
Then break your bread -- or OK, slice it. The crack of the golden crust, the aromatic malty interior, the crumbs that will soon be strewn across your plate like fairy tale evidence: There’s a particular taste borne by accomplishment, and you can’t buy it at any store.
How they shape up
Note: The basic bread recipe makes enough for two boules; or one boule plus three baguettes; or one boule plus one fougasse; or one boule plus a dozen rolls; or any combination thereof. The instructions below are for half of a basic bread recipe.
Baguette: Divide the dough into three portions; cover two portions until ready to use. Press the dough into a rectangle, then fold the bottom of the dough up to a little past the center mark. Fold the top portion down to overlap slightly, then press the folded dough along the center to seal the edges. Fold the dough in half again lengthwise, pinching the edges together at the new seam as you go. Roll the dough back and forth, stretching it until it’s about 2 inches shorter than your baguette pan. Place the stretched dough in an oiled baguette pan. Repeat for the other two portions, cover and let rise -- about 20 minutes. Dust with flour, slash with a sharp knife or razor, and bake.
Boule: Flatten the dough into a circle, kneading the dough with your fingers to deflate any air pockets. Fold the edges of the dough into the center and pinch them together, then turn the ball over so that the pinched part is at the bottom. With both hands cupping the ball of dough, move it around in a circle on an unfloured surface until you feel the dough tightening. Then put the dough into a floured banneton, pinched side up, cover and let rise until it’s about 1 inch below the top of the basket -- about 30 to 40 minutes. Invert the basket onto parchment paper, slash the loaf with a sharp knife or razor, and bake.
Fougasse: Stretch the dough into a rectangle, an oval or a tombstone, roughly 10 inches by 6 inches. With a sharp knife or a dough cutter, cut slits in the dough to form the desired shape: four 4-inch horizontal slits for a ladder, for example, or two 3-inch vertical slits in the center of the dough, then two sets of three 3-inch diagonal slits -- one on either side of the vertical slits, fanning outward. The cuts should never get closer than an inch apart, as you’ll need to allow enough dough to remain connected. With floured hands, enlarge the cuts so that the openings are at least 1 to 2 inches wide. Cover the dough and let it rise, about 30 minutes. Dust with flour and bake.
Rolls: Divide the dough into 12 portions. (Cover the portions with a cloth or piece of oiled plastic while shaping the rest of the rolls.) Using only one hand, form the dough the same way you would a large boule, rolling the portions around in a circle on an unfloured surface until they tighten and form a taut ball. Place them on parchment paper a few inches apart -- giving them room to rise -- then cover and let rise, about 20 minutes. Dust with flour, snip an “X” into the tops with a pair of scissors (optional), and bake.