Monday, January 8, 2018

Rustic Country Loaf

If you're a big researcher, like me, check out what Reddit has to say about making bread!
I believe that a simple bread recipe should be in the arsenal of every cook in America, be they home cook, broke student, or professional chef. There's, of course, an art and deep and wonderful science to bread, but this isn't the blog for that.

Bread, in essence, is air. It's far more air than bread; we're eating air that you can make a sandwich out of. A CT scan of bread will show you that it's mostly the skeleton of a gas that's been released during the cooking process, with starches and proteins freezing (or baking) in time with the transformative nature of heat to help it along. It's thanks to bread that we have civilization, and that's not even a hyperbole. Because of fermentation, we found a way to make more food out of less ingredients, and that truly is a magical thing. Here's how to make some magic in your own kitchen.

Simple Country Loaf
yields two small loaves or one big loaf
Adapted from Mother Earth News's Country Loaf recipe
  • 2 3/4 cups AP flour
  • 1 cup rye flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 2 Tbsp sugar(honey works, too)
  • 3 Tbsp fat**(we'll get into details down in the recipe)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 c water, body temperature
  • 1 cup liquid levain**

Turn on your oven to 250. Mix your flours, salt, and liquid levain in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a hook attachment, or just a large bowl if mixing by hand. If using a liquid levain, it is best if it's at least at room temperature before starting. Hmm? Oh, what's a liquid levain? Haha, sorry...

A liquid levain (or poolish, if you prefer) is essentially a sourdough starter. You can start it by mixing equal parts of flour and water and letting hang out for a few days to ferment on its own, or you can start it with a pinch of yeast and sugar, if you're a little desperate. That being said, it should be at least two days old before starting with it. After all, what's a sourdough starter if not a little funky, and funk comes with maturity. A levain should be fed every day with a little bit of water and flour, stirred, and allowed to rest; you can also keep them cool, in the fridge, to let them sleep. They say you can only keep them for a month before they go too dormant, but I've honestly let mine hang out for 2 months in the fridge before and it still comes back to life every time I bring it up to room temperature. Who knows? Since the fermentation comes from wild yeasts, perhaps I caught the kind that's super-resistant to cold? I am, after all, in the midwest. Anyway. A levain is the key to a good, complex bread, and if you're serious about baking breads and other yeasty stuffs, seriously consider starting your own liquid levain. 

And, yes, you too can use your liquid levain/sourdough starter to make delicious misshapen cinnamon rolls!
Once your dry (and not-so-dry) ingredients are hanging out in the bowl, whisk together the yeast with the sugar and water to dissolve. Let it sit near your oven, but not on the stovetop of your oven, just to let it warm up. When I say that the water should be body temperature, I mean that you should stick your fingers in the water and it should feel rather comfortable, maybe just a hair warmer than your body is. I like the cooler temperature for yeasts to ensure it won't be killed, and you'll also get a nicer flavor from a slower rise. You'll also be letting it be in a rather warm place, anyhow, so it'll bubble up nicely anyway, which usually takes five minutes.

While we're waiting, let's talk about fat and its role in bread. It's, in essence, a dough conditioner that will keep it soft and add some flavor. You can use an infused olive oil or coconut oil, but I prefer saturated fats in breads. Why? Because a saturated fat stays solid at room temperature(such as shortening, lard, coconut oil or butter) it has, by nature, a more solid molecular structure, and it ends up improving the end texture of the product, whereas an unsaturated fat(such as a plant oil, like olive oil) would be more for flavor than texture, and they may go drier quicker. And yes, yes, some fats are bad for you - but let's be honest, you need some fat in your diet so your body can process your vitamins. It's just a fact that certain vitamins are only fat-soluble. Besides, we shouldn't fat-shame bread anyway. You wouldn't do it to your friends, so you oughtn't do it to your bread, who is doing their best, by the way. 

When your yeast is bubbly and alive, stir the mixture into the flour using either a wooden spoon or your machine. Begin to knead with the machine or your hands, but for heaven's sake, knead in the bowl by pressing and pulling the dough. Seriously, you can do this, and it'll keep your counter all that much cleaner. About halfway through(2 or 3 minutes in) add in your chosen fat. I chose rendered drippings for my fat, mostly because it's what I had on hand, and also because it's such a great thing to have dripping. Oh, dripping is fat that's leftover from cooking bacon, or perhaps roasting a pork belly in your oven, or even roasting chicken skin for craquelins, all saved in a nice jar either in the fridge or in the pantry. It's a very flavorsome alternative to butter(which can be expensive) and honestly a rather common practice to have on hand anyway. Remember the can of fat that your grandmother had on the counter? Or the coffee cup full of bacon grease your dad kept in the door of the fridge? That's dripping - and you can use it to make bread. 

Once your five minutes are up, transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover with a clean tea towel, and let sit for 2 hours. It's at this stage you can clean up, go see a friend for lunch or go to the grocery store, and then come back. No, you shouldn't leave the oven on while you're out of the house, so please do turn it off if you're doing that, but leave the dough on the stove so it'll stay warm.

Oddly, you can pick these up at home improvement warehouses- many of them will sell you
the mis-cuts for a discounted rate, if they have them.
Now that you're back home, turn your oven to 450(not kidding) and put an empty metal pie tin in the bottom of the oven. Shape the loaves as you so desire, but I like the long and simple country loaf shapes for this particular application. I did two different shapes, mostly because I wasn't sure what I was in the mood for. Shape them on a well-dusted counter (or marble slab if you're a privileged jerk like me) of flour and cornmeal to either logs or boules(round loaves) and put on a sheet tray lined with parchment (or a silpat mat, if you have it) and cover with the clean tea towel once again. Let proof on your stovetop in that nice warm space for 45 minutes. 

Time for a nap, loves!
Open up your oven and put your bread onto the middle rack of your oven, and dump 3 or 4 cups of ice into the pie tin in the bottom rack of the oven. This will create steam and give you that wonderfully rustic crust that we associate with baker's bread. Shut that oven door and let cook for 30 - 35 minutes, or until deliciously dark and brown and temps out at 200 degrees. (Yes, bread has a temperature it should be at.)

Evacuate from the oven and immediately pick them up and put them on a cooling rack. This is because you don't want steam to be trapped on the bottom of your bread as it cools, so it's a good idea to let some airflow happen underneath your loaf as it cools. It's likely a safe assumption that you don't like having a soggy bottom, so it's an even safer assumption that your bread won't either - be considerate to your bread. 

I hope this has inspired you. Please don't hesitate to comment on my blog or my instagram on what you'd like to see next. Happy cooking and happy eating!

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