This is a new thing for me.
See, there are two kinds of people in the kitchen: cooks and bakers. It’s easy to tell the difference: Cooks are the ones who, when asked for a recipe, say something like, “Oh, I just mixed in some lemon juice with some eggplant and tahini— threw in some olive oil and a couple of spices at the end.” Cooks make it sound easy, but when you’re standing in front of your mixer, trying to make baba ghanoush, you realize all you have is a list of ingredients.
Bakers, on the other hand, will write you out a detailed, step-by-step guide, or direct you to the page number of their favorite cook book. Bakers see every act in the kitchen as a science. Unfortunately, it means that they get a little nervous when it’s time to experiment or if they’re missing an ingredient. On the upside, it means that they can create things like bread.
I’ve always been a cook. As a kid, if we didn’t have vegetable oil in the house for banana bread, I’d shrug my shoulders and use olive oil, leaving my parents to wonder why such a sweet food had such an odd earthy flavor to it. Didn’t have regular potatoes for my favorite soup? I’d throw in sweet potatoes. Out of apple cider vinegar? I’d use balsamic. And so on. Some of my substitutions led to disaster. Some of them were delicious. All of them were edible.
Except for my breads. A true German, I love bread. I love it with butter, with cheese, with jam, with meat— or even just to sop up the juice from my plate after a delicious meal. I longed to make it myself. So while living in a co-op in college, I gave it a shot. Except each time, I “adjusted” part of the recipe: Cut the rising time from seven hours to three. Skimped on the yeast. Ignored the second rise altogether. Naturally, the results were wholly disastrous: Whole wheat? Like a foot ball. Rye? Like a hockey puck. White? Like marble. After countless experiments, I gave up. Clearly, I was too much a cook to bake. Who needed to make their own bread, anyhow?
Enter rising bread prices.
Confronted with four-dollar-a-loaf prices for “artisan” bread and not much less than that for sliced (and forget about getting organic), I knew that I had to try again. This time, I swore, I would keep it simple and follow. the. directions. I bought a small bag of organic unbleached flour and some active yeast, went home and googled until I found a recipe for idiots like me. I knew it had to be out there.
And it was:
Simple Crusty Bread (Adapted by The New York Times from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, and then adapted by me)
- 1.5 Tablespoons yeast
- 1.5 Tablespoons kosher salt (I had this in the house, otherwise I would’ve used regular)
- 6.5 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus some for dusting dough (the small bag I bought plus what my roommates had in the cupboard was just barely enough
- Take out a really big bowl. Fill with 3 cups of lukewarm water (the recipe calls for 100 degrees, but I filled it with water that was hot to the touch, but not unpleasantly so).
- Stir in yeast and salt until dissolved. Then stir in flour, making sure to get rid of all the dry patches.
- Cover with a cloth or paper towel and let rise at room temperature anywhere between 2 and 5 hours.
- Separate the dough into four equally-sized amounts. Put three into the fridge in covered containers. You can keep them there for up to two weeks. (Instructions on how to deal with the dough once it’s been refrigerated follow below.)
- With the fourth portion, sprinkle a little flour on your hands and shape the dough until the top is rounded (bottom can stay lumpy).
- Put the dough on a greased baking pan (or in a greased loaf pan) and let it sit for 40 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450F. Put a broiler pan on the bottom (I used a cookie sheet).
- Dust dough with flour, slash the top with a serrated or very sharp knife three times, and put the pan into the oven.
- Throw a cup of hot water into the broiler pan and shut the oven quickly to trap the steam.
- Bake until well-browned (about 30 minutes).
If you’re working with the refrigerated dough: Follow same directions, but let the dough sit out an additional hour once you’ve shaped it and placed it on/in a pan.
Total yield: 4 small loaves