Making dough

The editors at Epicurious must be reading my mind, because I’ve been thinking about bread-baking a lot lately and they just e-mailed me their newsletter with a link to a wonderful online guide to bread basics. How did they know?

Ever since I was a kid and enjoyed the homemade bread baked by my best friend’s mom, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who turned out yeast bread like it was nothing. But, like many, I find the prospect intimidating, from fermenting the living yeast to kneading the dough to proofing. It’s a time-consuming process, not suited to those (like me) who crave instant gratification. I’ve tried baking bread occasionally, but it requires practice if you want to enjoy tasty, consistent results.

But these current economic times have encouraged me to revisit my ambition. You see, bread is a staple of our household. Even during the height of the Atkins anti-carb craze, we never abandoned bread. It’s good for the soul. But we crave artisanal loaves with crunchy crusts and tender interiors, and we’ll go through a pricey ciabatta from the gourmet store in a day or two. That adds up.

So, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and try again. I’ve had some success lately with pizza dough, which makes me more confident about working with yeast. After trolling around the Internet for recipes, I turned to cookbooks and settled on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. Marcella never leads me astray.

Still, as usual I couldn’t resist futzing with the recipe. It calls for a total of 6 1/2 hours of rising time, which works if you start by noon, revisit it at intervals throughout the day, and then bake it for dinner. I was starting at 6:30 p.m. And I had a plan, sort of. Here’s the recipe, with many deviations from Marcella’s sage instructions. Experienced bread bakers, please chime in with any advice you have.

breadcloseupMantovana (Olive Oil) Bread

Adapted from Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Even with a few hiccups, it turned out OK, but practice will make it perfect.

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1/8 teaspoon sugar

1 cup warm water, divided

2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached bread flour (’cause it says it’s “better for bread” right on the label)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cornmeal

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water. Let stand 10 minutes. Place 1 1/2 cups flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. With the motor running, gradually pour the yeast mixture and 1/4 cup warm water through the food chute. Process until dough forms in a lump around the blades. Remove dough from processor, and knead by hand for 1 to 2 minutes. Place the dough in a large bowl dusted with flour; cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place for 3 hours or until it has doubled in bulk.

2. Place 1 cup flour in the bowl of the food processor, add the dough and salt. With the motor running, add the remaining 1/2 cup warm water and oil. Process until the dough forms a lump around the blade, add more of the remaining 1/2 cup flour if needed. Remove the dough from processor, and knead by hand for 1 to 2 minutes. Return the dough to the flour-dusted bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rise in a warm place for another 3 hours or until it has doubled in bulk. [At this point, it was getting late, so I popped the bowl in the refrigerator and went to bed.]

3. Put a baking stone (a k a pizza stone) in the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 F.

4. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a floured work surface. [At this point, it was 6:30 a.m., I woke up, scampered downstairs and removed the dough from the fridge. It was very cold so I let it warm to room temperature. Sort of.] Slap the dough down very hard several times or until it stretches out lengthwise. Starting with the farthest edge, fold the dough 3 or 4 inches toward you, then push it away with the heel of your hand. Continue to fold and push, gradually rolling the dough toward you in a tapered roll. Holding the dough by one of the tapered ends, lift it high over your head and slap it down on the counter (this part is lots of fun); do this several times until it stretches out lengthwise. Repeat the folding-and-pushing maneuver. Continue working the dough–slapping, folding, and pushing–for 8 minutes. [Since my dough was chilly, I had to work it a bit longer.] Shape the dough into a thick, cigar-shaped loaf that’s thick in the middle and tapered at the ends. Place it on a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. Cover with a damp towel, and let it rest 30 minutes.

[I was just about ready to put bread in the oven when my mate toddled into the kitchen, started slicing an (existing) loaf of (fancy, gourmet-store) bread, and sliced his thumb in the process. It needed professional medical attention, so I turned off the oven, left the dough, took him to urgent care, and returned 2 hours later. It looked fine when I returned.]

5. Use a sharp knife to cut a 1-inch-deep lengthwise slash on top of the dough. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the dough with water. Slide the dough onto the preheated baking stone. Bake at 450 F for 12 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 F (do not remove bread from oven), and bake an additional 40 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. Yield: 1 loaf.

[Note: Yes, I have tried Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread recipe, printed in The New York Times a couple of years ago. The dog ate the dough that was proofing on the counter, which could happen anyway, but I’d also rather knead the bread and enjoy it the same day I crave it.]