A harmless ice-breaker had suddenly gotten kind of awkward.
I was on a first-year residence council and I had tossed out the idea that we go around the circle and each list our name, our hometown, and our favourite food. But when we got to my friend Sarah, everything went a bit astray.
“Bread. I love when a good loaf of bread has a really crunchy, hard brown crust that gives way to a soft, tender, melt-in-your-mouth center…” Sarah gazed dreamily off into the distance, thinking of rustic French boules, fresh out of the oven. It was very reminiscent of the When Harry Met Sally pie scene. Nevertheless, I understood: the perfect slice of bread can be heaven.
Baking and eating bread has served as the cornerstone of numerous cultural practices for thousands of years. The ritual of bringing yeast to life, hand-kneeding dough, patiently letting it rise, and finally baking it and sharing it seems almost instinctual.
Baking bread can appear daunting to a lot of home cooks, but it’s much easier than it seems. I’ve baked challah and flat breads for years, but I recently found the ideal bread recipe: very little effort and prep-time with that exact food-passion inducing result. Best of all, the recipe only calls for flour, water, yeast, salt, and honey, which makes my goal of baking it every weekend as a way to relax seem like a delight instead of a challenge.
Mix one and a half tablespoons of active dry yeast and a tablespoon of honey into three cups of warm (not hot – you’ll kill the yeast) water. Walk away for 15 minutes. When you return, the yeast should have produced a fair amount of bubbles and foam at the top. If there is no foam, this means your yeast was dead (you might have killed it with boiling-hot water), so start over with new yeast.
Add one and a half tablespoons of salt, and slowly incorporate six and a half cups of flour – I use five and a half cups of all-purpose flour and one cup of whole-wheat flour. The resulting dough will be sticky and won’t form a ball, but don’t worry. Cover it, and allow it to rise for two hours in a warm and preferably humid spot, such as the laundry room with a dryer running.
With floured hands and a floured cutting board, divide the dough into two loaves. Roll each into round balls. Let them rest on the board for 40 minutes. Before baking, pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Three tricks for bakery-quality bread
1. While you’re pre-heating the oven, place a roasting pan on the lowest rack of the oven. Also leave your baking sheet in the oven as it pre-heats.
2. For an artistic look, just before you place the loaves on the hot baking sheet, use a sharp knife to cut a few shallow stripes across the top of the loaf.
3. When you put the bread in the oven, pour one cup of hot water into the pre-heated roasting pan at the bottom of the oven. Shut the oven door, and do not open it for 30 minutes. The steam trapped in the oven will create a crunchy, hard brown crust with a soft, tender, melt-in-your-mouth centre – and an experience worth dreaming about.