Bread is magic. A magic that I have yet to master, but one I’m keen to keep working at. The results of my trial and error may not be perfection, but it’s always tasty!
Anyone who has ever tried making bread will tell you it’s a tricky process whose results are never guaranteed. And yet, it’s the most common of all foods, a staple going back millennia. Integral not only to physical life, but spiritually as well. All religions feature bread somewhere in their dogma or rituals: Christianity, Judaism, Sufism, Islam, Buddhism, Paganism.
“Breaking bread” is literally a tie that binds us. The term is derived from Latin, com: with or together, and pani: bread. The modern word companion is derived from the same Latin roots. Breaking bread symbolically makes us one, brought together with bread.
Few meals are complete without some form of bread on the table: be it rolls, baguettes, flatbread, or plain white sandwich bread. Even in a time when carbs have become the enemy, bread holds fast in our collective psyche and begs us all to take just one bite of its delightful, comforting, goodness.
The alchemy of making bread can seem intimidating. When done wrong, missing even the smallest of steps can prove catastrophic. Having too much or too little or any one ingredient, proofing or not proofing your yeast, not making sure the water or the room you’re raising the bread in is just the right temperature to help the yeast eat away at the sugars without going too far and making a bubbly mess, can all conspire to make bread seem like an unattainable mistress who will never become all you imagine.
Yet, when done properly, balancing the chemistry of the simple ingredients, with the art of just the right touch as you knead the dough, bread is a glory and wonder.
A home filled with the scent of bread baking is one of those rare smells that makes anyone who enters feel comforted and taken care of. And, for those who have had the privilege of getting a freshly baked baguette from a bakery, first thing in the morning, before all the world comes awake, you know that there’s no greater feeling of partaking in a miraculous secret.
This recipe is for a good old-fashioned French Bread, a daily staple on any French table, and a building block for so many other wonderful recipes. In addition to just having the bread all by itself – straight out of the oven with a little butter, this is wonderful for making homemade croutons, crostini, bread pudding, and of course french toast. It’s a versatile bread that you can find a myriad of uses for. It’s also a wonderful accompaniment to my Chili Con Carne.
Now, I hope you’ll gather your courage and give bread making a try. It is intimidating, and I still have moments where I question if I got it right. But, as with anything of worth, practice will lead you to creating your own comforting secret at home. And even if you stumble a little and it’s not perfect, I promise, if you try making this bread it will still bring those you love together. No one can resist freshly baked homemade bread!
- 2 1/2 C warm water (approximately 100 degrees)
- 3 Tbs. sugar
- 2 Tbs. white vinegar
- 2 packets, rapid rise yeast
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 1/3 C. oil, vegetable or canola
- 6-7 C. all-purpose flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- Combine the water, sugar and vinegar in a small bowl, mixing just to incorporate. In a large bowl or mixer, combine the yeast, salt, oil, and 6 cups of the flour. Add the water mix slowly to the flour mix, incorporating as you add. Once you have incorporated all the water, if the dough is still a little too wet and loose, and sticks to the bowl slowly add the last cup of flour until your dough is soft, but firm enough to mold into loaves, and comes free from the bowl without too much sticking.
- Now the elbow work – on a lightly floured surface (just enough so it doesn’t stick to the surface or your hands), knead the dough for 2-5 minutes until the dough feels smooth and pliable. You may need to add a little more flour as you do this if your dough is still too wet and loose, but make sure not to use too much and make the dough too dry and crumbly. Your dough should be soft and a little wet and sticky. If it does get too dry just add a little more warm water until the dough loosens up again. Knowing the dough is kneaded enough is one of those things that comes with time and practice. This is the art part, getting to know just how the dough should feel. When the gluten’s have been worked enough the dough should have some bounce back when you press your thumb into it.
- Now put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and put it somewhere warm and draft free to rise. I use my oven because in the winter my kitchen is a little drafty. Without the oven on, put a small pot of boiling water inside with your bowl of dough and close the door. The pot of hot water will help bring the temp of the oven gently up to warm, and help keep the dough from drying out. I’ve also sometimes turned the oven on to “Warm” when I start making the dough then cut it off before putting my dough in to rise. This way I can make sure it’s a nice warm environment that will make the yeast happy and ensure my dough will rise.
- Since this recipe uses rapid rise yeast, it should only need one rise, instead of multiple rises like you would with active dry yeast. But, if you want to develop more flavor go ahead and do multiple rises, making sure to punch the dough down each time it doubles. All depends on how much time you have on your hands.
- After the dough rises and doubles, punch it down and pour the dough out onto a greased surface – I just use my countertop brushed with a little vegetable oil. Now divide the dough into 3 equal balls.
- Spray a large, flat, unsided cookie sheet with cooking spray and sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal on the bottom of the sheet.
- Form the dough balls into rectangular, long, French bread shapes. I just use my hands to stretch the dough, making sure to pull and tuck the dough under itself to make a nice smooth, even, loaf on the top.
- Set each loaf onto the greased cookie sheet, and with a sharp knife slash the tops of the bread diagonally, about 3-5 times. Let the loaves rise again for about 30 minutes, either on your countertop, or in the oven, if it’s too cool and drafty. The loaves should approximately double in size. I put my loaves in the oven and turn it on to the lowest (Warm) setting.
- After the final rise, beat the egg in a small bowl and brush the egg over the tops of the loaves. This will give them a nice golden crust. You can omit this step if you prefer a lighter crust to your bread. While you’re doing this preheat your oven to 375.
- Put you loaves in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
- When you pull your bread out, resist the urge to cut into them right away. Give them about 20 minutes to cool on a baking rack. This lets the bread rest a bit and finish cooking with the remaining residual heat from baking.