"I feel like a Tom Robbins book: "...and in her 50th year she fell in love with a KitchenAid mixer, a vintage Wolf Range, and renewed her commitment to a bubbling batch of 13 year old sourdough starter!"" — Juliette
What I have learned about baking bread after nearly twenty-five years of practicing the art can be summed up in one word: relax - not everything has to be so precise. Yes, baking is a science, but with bread there is some leeway. As a rule, I forgo altering ratios of ingredients for cakes and cookies, but I have discovered that the process for baking bread is quite forgiving as long as I do not error in adding too much flour. There is an oft repeated adage that fish and guests stink after three days. Not so with bread dough. The amiable, go-with-the-flow dough will accomodate you and your schedule, provided there is room in your refrigerator to keep it as a contented guest for up to a week, until you are ready to shape and bake loaves.
You might say, well that's all great, but I can buy tasty artisinal loaves at my local bakery. Why would I want to make bread at home? To that question I would respond, I buy a lot of bread from my friendly, local bakery, too. However, after long hours sitting in front of my laptop, I like to participate in an activity that is fun, engages the senses, and yields amazing results. Baking bread is a creative endeavor open to a variety of sweet and savory interpretations. I also like the fact that I can complete other tasks around the house while the dough is resting and rising. It's a multi-taskers dream come true.
My sister, Linda made a living as a baker for many years. My sister, Juliette currently makes her living as a baker of artisinal breads and pizzas. I make bread because I find it relaxing and for the pride I feel when I see the beautiful loaves cooling on the kitchen table. I also appreciate that my baking brings joy to my friends and family.
If you were to ask my sisters and me what is alive and happy in our refrigerators, we would all three shout, "Sourdough!" Juliette does not add any extra yeast to her breads (by the way, all the gorgeous loaves are Juliette's in this post), using the natural leavening in the sourdough as the basis for her breads and pizza dough. Sourdough is low glycemic index because the fermentation process rids the flour of a lot of starch and sugar - basically the yeast eats it. It is also acknowledged that sourdough is easier to digest for people with wheat issues because the fermentation process breaks down the various components of the grain. Commercial yeast was invented simply because it is FASTER, and faster bread is just not as good because there is not enough time for flavor development.
Over the years, the three of us have continually shared our baking knowledge to help build each other's skills, such as this excerpt from an e-mail that Linda and I received from Juliette, "I am finally getting the hang of the baguettes. The technique that is finally working for me is to flatten the dough out by pressing firmly with my hands into a rectangle. Fold the short ends in like a letter. Pinch the seam, cover, and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Press it out again but not much and gently, and repeat the folding. Seal the seam. At this point you will have a fat little blob of dough. Working from the center and out, with the seam down, extend the dough until it is the length you want. You may have to let the dough rest again during this process for the gluten to relax. When the cylinder of dough is even and smooth place it in the baguette pan, and tuck the ends under. Let rise until almost double. Fifteen minutes or so before baking remove the protective cover off the loaves and let them dry out just a bit. A drier surface makes the slashing easier."
A big step forward in making bread, that we wrote about in the pizza dough recipe, is incorporating resting periods called autolyse into the dough making process. The resting periods allow for the flour to absorb the water. The goal is to make a sticky dough that has developed long strands of gluten. After the dough has risen, it is more pliable and easy to shape. For such little effort, autolyse yields great flavor and texture.
In the recipe below, we provide directions on how to bake a great loaf (with added yeast) from beginning to end in one session. If you want to make the dough, bake later in the week for convenience, and to build more complex flavor, here's how Juliette does it, "After you have finished the dough, remove the hook and let it rest in the mixer bowl for 15 minutes. Then divide the dough - in half for stuffed loaves or into four even pieces for baguettes. Place each in lightly oiled bowls or disposable plastic containers (that are large enough for the dough to expand). Let sit at room temp for fifteen minutes then put in the fridge for 24 hours (or longer; up to a week). When you pull the dough balls out of the fridge you can start shaping (and filling) them immediately. You can leave the loaves to proof until doubled. Make sure your loaves are slashed well to accommodate the "oven spring" when doing a "cold" bake. To make the crust slash easier let the loaves sit without covering until the surface starts to dry out a bit. Make sure you get a lot of water into the oven for the first 15 minutes."
French Bread - Baguettes and Filled Loaves
This is a versatile bread to serve with salads, soups, pasta or alongside appetizers. The "filled" versions always draw exclamations from guests. Leftover baguettes can be sliced thinly, brushed on both sides with olive oil, sprinkled with parmesan and baked on a sheet in a 400°F oven until crispy, about 15 minutes. The croutons make lovely crackers for a cheese and dip tray or floated on a bowl of soup or served alongside a green leaf salad. Extra loaves freeze well. Wrap cooled loaves in foil and freeze. Defrost at room temperature. To reheat, crisp the loaves in a 350°F oven for about 8 minutes.
1. Mixing the Dough: In a large bowl using a whisk or in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixture fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 2 cups warm water, 1 cup bread flour, and 1-1/2 cups semolina flour. Blend in mixer on medium speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Let rest in mixer bowl for 30 minutes (this resting period is called autolyse). If you live in a dry climate, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel or saran wrap.