Thursday, May 20, 2010

Relatively easy-to-make crusty peasant loaf

One of my favorite features of writing here on Rhosgobel has always been my "recipe blogging of the week" posts.  Through that little feature my SO and I have posted more than 110 different recipes. While I make no promises about continuing to post one recipe a week, I am happy to return to recipe blogging with the following bread recipe.

Peasant-style loaf with wheat germ.

While I've always enjoyed baking bread, the amount of work entailed in making a good loaf relegated  bread baking to days when I had lots of free time.  My favorite artisan bread baking book is Hamelman's "Bread"; it has incredibly detailed recipes and descriptions of techniques that allowed me to make a few loaves of delicious ciabatta.  However, said ciabatta also took me much work across two days, and thus my SO and I found ourselves frequenting our local bakery whenever we wanted bread.

That all changed when a friend introduced me to a new book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day".  I was extremely skeptical at first, as I'm always suspicious of recipes, books, and cooks that promise that home-cooked, old-world taste in two minutes flat ("and $20 off if you order in the next 5 minutes!"1). However, after a few failed attempts, I was able to modify the technique introduced in the book to make a surprisingly good peasant loaf with a minimal amount of work.   Here's the basic outline of the technique:
  1. Mix the ingredients in a large container and allow to rise for three hours at room temperature.
  2. Put the risen dough in the fridge, and refrigerate at least overnight, though it can hold for up to two or three weeks.
  3. Take the dough out of the fridge, pull out as much dough as you want to use that day, roughly shape it, and let it rise for about two hours (folding it after the first 20 minutes).
  4. Bake for ~40 minutes, and let cool until ready to eat.
While I'd hardly call it "bread in five minutes", the ability to have risen bread dough ready to go in the fridge has enabled me to bake bread virtually any day I want it.  Whenever I finish up one batch of dough, I immediately start another; my SO and I almost never buy artisan bread anymore.  So, if you're looking for a crusty loaf of bread that has a chewy, wheaty interior and yet doesn't take a tremendous amount of work to make, you might want to give this a try.

Bread ingredients:
3 cups water, ~100F
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
32.5 ounces (~6 1/4 cups) unbleached white flour
1/3 cup wheat germ

Supplies needed for baking:
unbleached white flour, for dusting hands and countertop
cornmeal, for dusting baking peel
approximately 1 cup boiling water, for steaming the oven
baking peel
baking stone (see notes)
steaming pan (see notes)

This recipe has three main parts: mixing the dough and letting it rise; forming the loaf and letting it rise; and baking the loaf. 

Making the dough:
1.  Mix the water, yeast, and salt in a container large enough to hold the risen dough (I use a 6 quart plastic container).  Let sit for a few minutes (to help the yeast clumps dissolve) and then mix again.  (Note: I've found that my hot tap water, which comes out of the tap at a maximum of ~125F, cools to ~100F after measuring it in my room-temperature glass measuring container and pouring it into the room temperature dough container).
2.  Mix the flour and wheat germ together, and then mix into the yeast solution. Mix until the flour is completely incorporated into the dough, and the dough has formed into a cohesive mass that resists your stirring and stretches when you pull the spoon out.  I do this by hand with a large wooden spoon (wimpy spoons will break); it will take a good amount of force by the end of the mixing, but shouldn't take more than a few minutes.  The dough will be moister than your average bread dough.
3. Taste the dough to ensure that you salted it (if you forgot to salt it, you'll know: wet, unsalted flour tastes terrible).  It should taste a little salty.
4.  Cover loosely (I put a plastic lid loosely on top) and let rise at room temperature (my house is usually around 70 to 80°F) for at least three hours. It should have at least doubled in volume by the time you're done (and will likely double in volume within the first hour or so).
5.  Cover so that there is only the barest entrance of air (I leave the aforementioned plastic lid just a bit unsnapped) and put in the fridge at least overnight.

Forming the loaf:
0.  Prepare your workspace: you'll need a container of flour (for dusting hands and countertops) and at least a 2 square foot area of countertop to work with.  I also get out a flat baking sheet to let the formed loaf rise on (allowing me to easily move it if needed).
1.  Remove the dough from the fridge, dust your hands with flour, and pull off as much dough as you would like to use, returning the unused dough to the fridge. I find that the recipe makes either three small to medium loaves or two large loaves.
2.  Form the dough into a rough ball in your hands, choose a point on the dough to be the top of the new loaf, and then shape the dough into a smooth mass by continually stretching the dough from the top to the sides and bottom.  To do this, hold the dough in both hands, carefully grab onto a part of it near the top with your thumbs, and then gently pull your thumbs to the side of the dough (stretching out the top part in the process, and using the palms or fingers of your hands both to support the dough and stretch the sides of the dough down onto the bottom).  Rotate the dough a bit, reflour your hands if needed (I hold the dough in one hand while I flour the other), and then stretch it again.  Continue until you've got a nicely formed ball with a continuous skin running around most of the top and sides.
3. Place the dough onto a flat floured surface, and let rise for 20 minutes.
4.  After the 20 minutes, flour a portion of your countertop and "fold" the dough.  To do this, pick the dough up and gently turn it upside down onto the floured workspace.  With the dough upside down, grab one edge of the dough, stretch it out until it almost breaks (yes yes, how do you stretch it until it almost breaks without first breaking it ...), and then fold that stretched-out piece back onto the center of the dough.  Repeat this stretching and folding for each of the other three sides (so, if you superimposed a clock onto the dough, you'd stretch it at noon, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, and 9 o'clock).  Then gently pick up the dough and invert it onto a newly floured piece of workspace (so that the original top of the dough is once again the top).
5. Let the dough rise for another hour to hour and 40 minutes (the lower amount of time if your kitchen is warm, say 80F, the greater amount of time if it's cool, say 70F).  By the end of the rising the dough should be noticeably larger, and somewhat jiggly when shaken.  NOTE: Start preheating your oven with the baking stone and steaming pan inside 40 minutes before the end of this rising time (as stated in step 0a in "baking the bread").

Baking the bread:
0a. 40 minutes before the bread is ready to go in the oven, put your baking stone and steaming pan in the oven (see notes) and preheat it to 460F.
0b. Shortly before the bread has finished rising, put some water on the stove to bring to a boil (if it's not boiling by the time the bread is ready to go in the oven, don't worry - just use it as is).
1.  When the bread has finished rising, pour approximately 1/2 cup of the boiling water into the steaming pan in the oven. Caution: this may create splattering, boiling-hot water and large amounts of steam, so wear protection (see notes).  Close the oven door.
2. Sprinkle cornmeal onto your baking peel to prevent the bread from sticking when you slide it into the oven.  I use a thin, rimless aluminum cookie sheet as my baking peel.
3.  Flour your hands, gently pick up the risen bread, and transfer it to the baking peel as close to the edge you will slide it off as possible, maintaining the shape of the loaf as much as possible (it will smush somewhat; that's fine).
4.  With a very sharp knife (I use a serrated bread knife), cut gashes into the bread approximately one to one and a half inches apart from each other.  The gashes should run the length (or width) of the loaf, be relatively deep near the center of the loaf (~1/2" deep), and shallower near the edges.
5. Blow or scrape off any cornmeal that is neither under the bread nor between the bread and the edge of the pan you will slide it off (if not cleaned off, this extra cornmeal may fall onto the bottom of your oven, burning and creating a smoky mess).
6. Get out a spatula and put it near the oven. When a portion of the bread sticks to the peel as you're sliding it off into a steaming-hot 460F oven, you'll thank yourself for remembering to get the spatula out.
7.  Open the oven and slide the bread off the peel and onto your baking stone, being as careful as possible to maintain the original bread shape. If the bread elongates or gets pushed a bit, this is fine.  If the bread sticks to the peel, use the spatula to gently help it off.  NEVER attempt to reach into the oven and adjust the bread on the stone; once it's on the stone, leave it (the stone is extremely hot, and could burn you very badly).
8. Immediately pour the rest of the boiling water (~1/2 cup) into the steaming pan, and close the oven door.  As before, this may create splattering, boiling-hot water and large amounts of steam, so wear protection.
9. Bake the bread for a total of 35-40 minutes (35 minutes for smaller loaves, ~1/4 to 1/3 of the recipe; 40 minutes for larger loaves, ~1/2 of the recipe).
10. About 20 minutes into the baking, briefly open the oven door to let any remaining steam out.  If there is still a bit of water in the steaming pan, that's fine.  If there's a lot of water left in the steaming pan, add a bit less next time (but don't open the oven door again to let any more out; just leave the extra water there for the rest of the baking).
11. Resist the temptation to open the oven door to check on the bread (it lowers the temperature of the oven drastically, and the crust benefits from a constant high heat, especially near the end of baking); leave the bread in for the total amount of time, opening it only once to release the steam.  The exception to this, of course, is if the oven catches on fire, starts smoking, or does something else to indicate impending disaster.
12. When the bread is done the crust should be hard, and a rich, dark brown at its darkest points.  Remove it from the oven using your peel, and transfer it to a cooling rack.
13. Bread is supposedly best if you let it cool to room temperature before cutting into it; I can rarely wait that long.  But try to let it cool for at least an hour or so before digging in.


If you're wondering what the bread looks like throughout this process, I've posted a photo guide to making this bread.

If you're trying to plan ahead, once you've got refrigerated, risen dough in the fridge it'll take you about 3 hours to complete a loaf of bread (~2 hours for rising and preparation, ~45 minutes for baking), with an extra hour needed for cooling after baking.   Note, though, that the bread needs very little tending during this time, so much of that time can be spent doing other things.

Bread doesn't finish rising until it has gone into the oven.  Once the bread starts warming up in the oven, the yeast in the dough start working overtime and carbon dioxide that was in solution in the dough is released to the air pockets inside the bread, causing the bread to rise dramatically (it can easily double in height).  If the oven has not been steamed, the outside layer of the loaf will quickly dry out and harden due to the hot, dry conditions, and thus the bread will be locked into its pre-oven shape (and won't rise much in the oven).

However, by steaming the oven we allow the outer layer of the loaf to stay moist (and cooler), thus allowing it to be flexible and expand as carbon dioxide is released into the air spaces in the quickly-warming loaf.  Thus, steaming the oven allows the bread to rise dramatically in the oven, a phenomenon bakers call "oven spring".  Steaming also helps the crust brown, as it allows the enzymes in the outer layers of the loaf to break down starches into sugars for a longer period of time (since the crust stays within the optimum temperature range of the enzymes longer), thus allowing more maillard and caramelization reactions to occur at the end of baking (thus making the crust much tastier).

To steam the oven I put an old broiling pan in the oven on the shelf below the baking stone. I line this pan with foil, and preheat it along with the baking stone. Then, when it's time to steam the oven I pour water from my tea kettle directly onto the foil in the pan. Until you learn how your steaming setup reacts, I'd advise wearing a long-sleeved shirt and hot-pads that entirely cover your hands when steaming (and if you're really worried, goggles are rarely a bad idea - you only have one set of eyes).  It's not as scary as it sounds; if you're at all worried about it, try doing it once when you're not baking bread to see what happens.  My steaming pan only splutters a little when I pour in the water, and I've never gotten burned even though I no longer even bother with a hot pad when holding the tea kettle. 

Bread baking is greatly aided by having a baking stone, as they have a large amount of thermal inertia that help bake the bread from the bottom.  If you don't have one, just use a thick baking sheet; it'll probably turn out just fine (though I haven't tried it, as I've had a baking stone for years).

The risen dough does keep for two or even possibly three weeks in the fridge, and keeps pumping out excellent bread throughout that time.  You know it's time to give up on it once the top has started to dry out and gotten very dark, and the dough is permeated with a smell of alcohol (the top portion of the dough always starts turning dark after a week or so; as long as it's just a little dark the bread should turn out fine). 

I always purchase my wheat germ from King Arthur Flour; their wheat germ has a different look to it than wheat germ I've seen being sold in bulk food stores (King Arthur's is in smaller pieces and darker brown); I don't know how much of a difference variation in suppliers makes. 

Treat this recipe as a starting point, not a finished product. The instructions I've included above are what work for me in my kitchen using my supplies; you may find that ingredient amounts, rising times, baking times, amount of folding, or other things may need to be slightly altered for you.  Play, and enjoy some good bread!

1 As far as I know the book has never actually been sold through infomercials, but anything making claims like it does makes me instantly think of an infomercial sales pitch.


Hamelman, J.  2004.  Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes.  John Wiley & Sons.

Hertzberg, J. and Z. Francois.  2007.  Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  St. Martin's Press.


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