Baking bread: Tips and recipes for the perfect loaf

Newsday food columnist Lauren Chattman demonstrates how to make rosemary focaccia bread. Videojournalist: Randee Daddona (Dec. 20, 2013)

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Forget learning a new language, mastering those yoga poses and drinking kale juice every morning. I have a New Year's resolution that will be a pure pleasure to stick to and good for you, too: Resolve to bake your own bread in 2014.

Bread is widely available, you may be thinking. Why bother baking it at home? First of all, it is one of the simplest "artisanal" foods you can make for yourself, a whole lot easier to produce than olive oil, wine or cheese. It contains just four basic ingredients, flour, water, yeast and salt, and requires no special equipment (although a baking stone is nice for free-form loaves).

When you make your own bread, you know exactly what goes into it. Preservatives, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup will not be hiding in a homemade loaf.

Nothing makes the house smell better than home-baked bread.

And even imperfect homemade loaves are delicious.

Your first bread may not look exactly like the expertly shaped round you buy at the bakery, but every time you bake you will gain experience and confidence. Bread baking, many people discover, becomes a hobby and a passion that lasts a lifetime.

For a little confidence the first time around, here are four things to think about before crafting your first focaccia, pan loaf or boule:

1. Know your flour

Using the right kind of flour is key to success. The less processing, the better the bread, so look for the words "unbleached" and "unbromated" when shopping.

The difference between high-protein bread flour and lower-protein all-purpose flour is also key. The more protein in the flour, the more gluten it will develop during kneading. It is gluten, a stretchy web that forms when flour bonds with water molecules during kneading, that provides structure for bread. So, use bread flour in recipes for crusty rounds like the rustic Gruyère boule, where a lot of gluten will help create large air bubbles and a chewy crust. For softer, flatter breads like the rosemary focaccia, all-purpose flour is a better bet.

Whole-wheat flour, which contains the bran and germ of wheat kernels, has proportionally less protein than either bread or all-purpose flour. Most whole-wheat breads contain some white flour, so they will rise to a reasonable height.

2. Knead with abandon (or a machine)

Good gluten formation requires strong kneading, so put some muscle into it. If you get tired, take a five-minute break. While you rest, the dough will relax too, becoming easier to push and pull. The best breads are made from wet, sticky doughs, so resist the urge to add too much flour during kneading. Better yet, keep your hands clean and use a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment or a food processor to knead the dough.

There are many techniques for hand-kneading bread, but this is the one I find most comfortable and efficient: Sprinkle the counter lightly with flour, place the dough on the counter, and sprinkle the dough with a little more flour. With one lightly floured hand, push downward and outward on the dough. Pull the near edge of the dough back over the top, rotate the dough 45 degrees, and then repeat, lightly sprinkling the countertop, dough and your hands with flour as necessary.

3. Use your senses

A recipe can tell you how your dough should look and feel at different stages, and give you approximate kneading and rising times. But there is no substitute for using your own eyes and hands to judge when it is really ready for the next step. Every time you practice, you will understand your dough a little better. So it is a good idea to make the same bread a few times in a row before trying a new recipe, so you can learn from experience.

4. Be patient

Bread baking may be easy, but it isn't quick. So get ready to wait. Most bread doughs have to rise twice, before and after shaping. One of the biggest mistakes novice bakers make is rushing to shape and bake their dough. Without sufficient time, yeast won't be able to proliferate and work its magic, and dough will never reach its potential height in the oven. When in doubt, wait before moving on.

_____

ROSEMARY FOCACCIA

This showstopping flatbread is very easy to make.

1¼ cups lukewarm water

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

3¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

(or ¾ teaspoons table salt)

plus more kosher or coarse salt for sprinkling

Fresh rosemary

1. Pour the water into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir in the yeast to dissolve. Add the flour, 1/3 cup olive oil and salt and stir with a spatula until a rough dough forms.

2. Knead the dough. By hand: Lightly flour the countertop and turn out the dough. Flour your hands and knead until smooth and stretchy, 12 to 15 minutes. By machine: With the dough hook, mix the dough on medium speed until smooth and stretchy, about 10 minutes.

3. Spray inside of a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray and place dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 1 to 1½ hours.

4. Brush a 10½-by-15½-inch rimmed baking sheet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Uncover the dough and scrape it into the baking sheet. Oil your hands and gently press the dough to the edges of the baking sheet, taking care not to tear it. If it springs back from the edges of the sheet, let it stand uncovered for 5 minutes (giving the gluten time to relax) before stretching it again. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until dough is puffy, 30 to 45 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and arrange oven rack in middle position. Brush dough with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Make indentations in the dough at 2-inch intervals. Pinch off little bundles of 3 or 4 rosemary needles and poke into each indentation. Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt. Bake focaccia until golden, 20 to 30 minutes.

6. Slide a large metal spatula (or rimless baking sheet) underneath focaccia and slide focaccia onto a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes one 15-by-10-inch flatbread.

_____

RUSTIC GRUYÈRE BOULE

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Refrigerating the dough for a day develops flavor in this more advanced "artisanal" loaf. And adding wheat bran gives the bread some whole-wheat heartiness without the heaviness of whole-wheat flour.

1½ cups lukewarm water

½ teaspoon active dry yeast

3 cups unbleached bread flour

¼ cup wheat bran

1½ teaspoons kosher salt (or ¾ teaspoon table salt)

4 ounces Gruyère (or other Swiss-type) cheese, cut into ¼-inch cubes

2 ounces Black Forest (or other good-quality cooked) ham, diced

1. Combine water and yeast in a large bowl and stir to dissolve yeast. Add bread flour, wheat bran and salt. Stir with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms.

2. Knead dough. By hand: Turn dough onto a lightly floured countertop. Knead until it is an almost-smooth mass, 8 to 10 minutes. Add cheese and ham and knead until they are incorporated, another 1 to 2 minutes. By machine: With a dough hook, knead dough on medium-low speed until it just clears sides of the bowl and is still a little lumpy, 10 to 12 minutes. Add cheese and ham and knead until well-incorporated, another 1 to 2 minutes.

3. Spray inside of a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray and place dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 and up to 24 hours.

4. Remove dough from refrigerator and let come to room temperature, 2 to 4 hours.

5. Give dough a turn: Slide your hands underneath and pick it up, so it droops over your hands. Then set it down on one of its drooping sides, back in bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise until it has increased in size by about 50 percent, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

6. One hour before baking, place a baking stone in middle rack of oven and a cast-iron skillet on the lower rack. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

7. Turn dough onto a countertop lightly dusted with flour. Gather it into a ball by cupping your hands around it and rotating it several times. Pull the slack surface of the dough downward toward the countertop and pinch it together underneath the round, creating a tight, smooth skin over the round. With your hands cupped around the dough, rotate it as you drag it across the counter, pulling the skin tighter and tighter by pulling any loose bits of dough toward the bottom and incorporating them into the seams underneath.

8. Line a 9-inch round bowl with a clean kitchen towel and sprinkle the towel with flour. Place the loaf in the bowl, smooth side down. Lightly drape the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.

9. Uncover the loaf, place a parchment-lined baker's peel or rimless baking sheet on top of the bowl, and invert the loaf onto the peel. Use a sharp chef's knife to make two 4-inch cuts, in an "X," on top.

10. Slide loaf, still on parchment, onto preheated baking stone. Drop ½ cup of ice cubes into cast-iron pan. Bake until the loaf is deep golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

11. Slide the loaf onto a wire rack. Let cool for 2 hours before slicing and serving. Makes one 10-inch round.

_____

MULTIGRAIN AND SEED LOAF

The food processor kneads this dough in a flash. A mixture of pumpkin, sunflower, flax and sesame seeds adds flavor and texture, but you can use any combination of seeds that you like.

1½ cups lukewarm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)

½ cup pumpkin, sunflower, flax and/or sesame seeds

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Combine water and yeast in work bowl of a food processor and process until yeast is dissolved. Add all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, salt, oats, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, honey and oil and process until a smooth ball forms. Continue to process an additional minute, to knead dough.

2. Spray inside of a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray. Shape dough into a rough ball and place in bowl. Let stand in a warm, draft-free spot until dough has doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.

3. Coat inside of a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and press into an 8-inch square. Make a groove across the square with the side of your hand and fold the dough over itself, pressing lightly on the edges to seal. With seam side down, roll the rectangle back and forth on a lightly floured countertop until it is the same length as the loaf pan. Place in pan, seam side down, pressing dough into pan so it touches sides and reaches into corners. Cover pan with plastic wrap and let dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot until it has almost risen to the top of the pan, 45 minutes to 1½ hours.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic wrap and place pan in oven. Bake until golden brown and firm, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove pan from oven and turn bread out onto a wire rack. Let cool to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours, before slicing and serving. Makes one 9-inch loaf.

You also may be interested in: