The image that springs to mind whenever we think of white bread is the one that we buy in the grocery stores. They serve their purpose when you’re in a hurry, but if you have time, it is worth making your own at home.
I remember a trip we took to Queenstown, New Zealand long ago. It was their fall and the temperatures were quite frigid at night. We arrived late to the place and, after dropping off our luggage in our hotel room, we went out seeking grub. To our dismay, most restaurants were closed as it was a Sunday night. We walked for what seemed an eternity in this tiny town and, by luck, came upon an almost medieval looking restaurant tucked in an alleyway.
I can still picture us entering through two solid wooden doors, happy to escape the icy night air. The restaurant was dark except for the orange glow cast by the fire roaring inside a cavernous fireplace. As we were escorted to our table, the sweet aroma of tomato sauce and oven bakes wafted around us. By then, we were desperately famished and couldn’t wait to give our order. It was sheer heaven when they brought our meal to us: spaghetti and meatballs, local brew, and a chunk of homemade white bread.
This recipe uses high protein (11.7%) content all purpose or bread flour. You can make this manually, but it’s easier and turns out just as good using your mixer. If you wish to manually knead the bread, just follow the instructions, placing the very sticky dough onto counter after mixing all the ingredients. Knead and add little flour at a time, working the dough for about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on how strong you are. The dough is ready to prove when it has a smooth texture and springs back when pinched.
1 cup warm water
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
1/2 cup flour
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour, as needed
2 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup cool water, and a little more water, if needed
1. Make the starter in your mixer bowl: Dissolve sugar in 1 cup warm water, add yeast, stir. Wait five minutes, then add 1/2 cup flour, stir, and wait another 30-45 minutes.
2. Add 1/2 cup cool water and 2 tablespoons of oil to the starter, followed by 3 cups of flour. Add the salt on top of the flour. Use a spatula and mix all the ingredients together – the dough should be wet. Attach to mixer with dough hook. Mix the dough, using the low setting, adding more flour a little at a time, mixing in between, until dough is very sticky and pulls slightly from bowl. Don’t keep adding flour at this point or the bread will be dry. The dough will stretch and develop a smooth sheen as it becomes more glutinous. This part you will learn with experience. Soon, it will pull away from the bowl. If you feel the dough is too dry/hard when you pinch it, add a little more water with a dash of flour. The dough should be silky soft and slightly on the sticky side. It is ready when it retracts back when pinched. Overall, mix the dough for about thirty to forty minutes, speeding the mixer up one notch for the final five minutes.
3. Prove the dough: Using a spatula, scrape all the dough from the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add a tablespoon of oil into the bowl and roll the ball of dough so that all sides are oiled. Cover with a thick kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Place in a cool spot (about 70 degrees F) until volume is doubled (may take about 3 hours or more). The longer you prove the dough, the more flavour it acquires. You can place it in the refrigerator overnight, if you wish, for a slow rise and bake the next day.
4. Second proof: Remove ready dough onto a counter surface sprinkled with some flour. Knead the dough for a few minutes. Form into a shape of your choice. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle some flour on it. Place the shaped dough on the sheet. Cover with a kitchen towel and prove for another thirty to forty-five minutes. If you had your dough in the refrigerator, let it warm up to room temperature before shaping.
5. Bake: Pour 2 cups of hot water into a oven-safe pan and place it at the bottom of your oven. Preheat oven to 450F. When dough is ready, remove cover, spray surface with tap water, and sprinkle some flour on it. Using a sharp knife, make two or three slashes across the top. Open oven, spritz some water onto the bottom to create steam. Place the dough into the oven. Bake for thirty to forty minutes. Resist opening oven. The bread is ready when the top is a golden brown. When you remove the bread, check the bottom by tapping it. If it sounds hollow, the bread is ready.
Note of advice: No recipe can tell you the exact measurements to make the perfect loaf of bread for your tastes. Bread making is one of those skills that improves with experience and takes patience. With repetition, you will discover the nuances that the artisanal bakers of yesterday and today have acquired. And, once you have tasted home made bread, you’ll want to make more.