Preparing your own food in general is a big part of slow life, but there are some foods which are especially magical. Wine. Bread.
Well, I am not making my wine yet (one day…), but I did figure out how to bake bread. It took me many years to fine-tune my method to make it as simple and as time-flexible as possible. Whereas all traditional bread recipes pretty much exclude people who have to go to work everyday, my bread method is specifically designed for this kind of people. Though I started my journey (as is fashionable to say these days) years before that, the method was heavily influenced by, and build upon, the famous New York Times’ no-knead bread. Indeed, skipping the kneading part is the key feature of the method.
I only bake bread with whole wheat flour. Generally speaking, “white” flour is easier to work with and rises better, so my recipe should work with it as well (just use half as much yeast), but I have not really tested it.
This is a pretty minimal recipe, with just four ingredients. It is generally impossible to make bread with less.
We only need the following:
Whole wheat flour, 6 cups
Salt, ⅔ to 1 table spoon
Yeast, ½ tea spoon (plus or minus)
This produces two standard-size loafs of breads (in 9″×5″ baking pans) or one large, even tastier loaf (made in a Dutch oven). When needed, it is straightforward to half or even double this recipe.
The algorithm goes like this.
In a very large bowl mix the dry ingredients (everything but water). Then slowly add water (preferably, cold water in the summer and warm water in the winter, but not hot water!) until the flour is wet. Mix well with a large wooden spoon. Cover and leave it to rise for 12–24 hours, the longer the better.
If at any point during the rising you decide to postpone the baking, just put the bowl in the fridge. You can keep it there for quite some time (up to two weeks!). Generally speaking, the longer the dough rises, the tastier the bread is.
After 12–24 hours, get the dough out of the bowl and fold it a few times onto itself to agitate it a little bit. If baking two loaves, split in half and put into the pans. I find it necessary to grease or oil my pans beforehand (I use a thin layer of a vegetable oil, usually canola oil).
If there is time, cover the dough and let it rise again — maybe for an hour or an hour and a half. If you have no time for this, just skip directly to baking. (These days I do the following variation of this step: put the dough in the pans right away, put the still switched-off oven and let them to stay there for 40–60 minutes, then just turn the oven on).
Put the pans in the cold oven and set it to 450°F. Bake for 1 hour for 9″×5″ loaves and for 1½ hours for a large loaf, until done. (The baked bread should have hard crust, make a hollow sound when you tap it, and have the internal temperature of 195°F or over).
The last step (important). When done, get the bread out of the oven and out of the pans and leave it to cool exposed to air from all sides (for example, on a turned-off burner of a gas stove). Alas, you can only start eating bread after it has fully cooled down.
This method has a few major differences with the traditional bread recipes: I don’t knead the dough; I put very little yeast and leave it rise for a very long time; I don’t preheat the oven. (The lack of preheating, by the way, allows to put the dough in the pans in the oven overnight, to program the oven to turn on one hour before the wake-up time and to wake up to the delicious smell of fresh bread being baked. That was my last breakthrough when I realized that my oven can be programmed).
So, how much work is required here? Three minutes to measure the ingredients and to make the dough, one minute to put it into the pans, and one more minute to take it out of the oven and set to cool down. Five minutes for two loaves! Not too shabby, I say.
Even more importantly, the method works great on workdays when I have to leave house in the morning and come back in the evening. For example, it is possible to make the dough in the evening after work, and either bake it next evening, or leave overnight, so it gets baked in the morning.
The outcome? Minimalistic wheat bread, well liked by many people including my kids. And that’s saying a lot!
It is possible to build up on the recipe by adding more ingredients while following the basic method. I personally always try to add at least ½ cup of whole rye flour and/or 2 table spoons of caraway seeds. But that deserves a separate post.
Enjoy, and bon appétit!
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