Tuesday 24 November 2015

Crusty French Bread

This is going to be a short post, but I was in Chicago again last week visiting a friend of mine. He loves bread and butter. It's one of his all-time faves. I asked him if he'd ever had fresh, homemade bread at home and he said he hadn't. I insisted he let me throw down. This is one of those super old school, traditional comfort food staples that is so simple and so basic and yet so comforting and incomparable. You can enjoy it simply with butter or dipped in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You could use it make sandwiches, toast, stuffing for poultry or pork, croutons, French toast, bread budding... I mean, really, you face an endless array of possibilities. If you've never made your own bread at home you must as soon as possible. It's just that important. This is a great one to start with because it's very straight forward and basic but classic and traditional in its own right. It's a fun experience and it will make your kitchen smell amazing. 


5 - 5.5 cups bread flour*
2 cups warm water
1 tbsp (or standard packet) dry yeast
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sugar
2  tsp sea salt
1 tbsp corn meal

*bread flour has slightly more protein than all-purpose flour. This aids in gluten development for a chewier texture. You can substitute with all-purpose if you wish. 

Heat 2 cups of water until very warm but still comfortable to the touch (110 F or 43 C, if you want to get technical). If your water is not warm enough it won't activate the yeast, but if it's too hot it could kill the yeast. Dissolve 1 tbsp of sugar into the water then dissolve the yeast. The yeast will feed on the sugar and "proof" (foam). Cover and allow it to proof for about 10 minutes. 

Add the salt, oil and 3 cups of flour. Add the flour one cup at a time while you beat with a spoon for a couple of minutes. Eventually the dough will come together and it will be easier to use your hands. 

Add 2 more cups of flour, one at a time and incorporate into a stiff dough. Lightly flour a clean, flat work surface and turn your dough out onto it. Knead for about 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle your surface with more dough as required.  

Place in a lightly oiled bowl, turning enough times to coat the dough on all sides and cover. This will keep the dough from drying out. Keep the dough in a warm, draft-free place and let it rise until it has doubled in size. This can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes or more depending on the climate and weather of where you are when you make this. 

Punch down the dough and divide into equal halves. Shape the halves of dough into long, slender loaves. Grease a cookie sheet and sprinkle with 1 tbsp corn meal. Place the loaves on the pan and use a pair of scissors to cut shallow, diagonal gashes across the top of the bread. Then cover, and allow them to double in size again in a warm, draft-free place.

Preheat your oven to 375 F/191 C. Uncover your bread. This next step is optional but you can spray a little water from a bottle or just wet your fingers and flick them over the dough before placing them in the oven. This will make an extra crusty product. Then place in the middle of your preheated oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until you have a beautiful, golden brown crust. You will know they are ready when you knock on them and they have a hard crust on the outside and sound hollow in the middle. Allow to cool for a few minutes before digging in but be sure to enjoy while it's still warm. 

If you don't need both loaves right away you can freeze one of them for a few months if need be. Just let it come down to room temperature before freezing it or it will spoil.  

When you make this be sure to give yourself a few hours so your dough has plenty of time to rise. Aside from that this is very simple. This is a great project to do if you have other things around your home that need your attention because of the inactive proofing time. As far as draft-free places go I usually use the oven or microwave (left turned off of course) with the door closed. Can't really beat that.

Fresh, homemade bread warm out of the oven is something to be had. A little smear of butter, instantly melting into it doesn't hurt either! You'll be amazed at how much better this is compared to bread you can buy at a store. Just keep in mind that its freshness will be a fleeting quality. When not using your bread, keep it sealed airtight and try to use it up within 3 days. If you don't finish in time, don't worry... stale bread is perfect for things like croutons, stuffing, French toast and bread pudding as I mentioned earlier. You can't lose!


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