There is nothing in this world that is better than the smell of freshly baked bread. No, nothing. It is miraculous.
Bread is an absolute necessity for most meals – from toast and PB&Js to paninis and French baguettes…pretzels, croissants, dinner rolls, flat bread, naan, bread sticks, pizza. In one way or another bread is present – unless you are avoiding carbs, which I could never do because I love bread, which is why Jaime and I picked this for one of our harvest feast sides!
Yet. In my whole life I’ve never baked a loaf of bread – it has always been purchased or gifted or served to me. Baking is probably my most favorite kitchen activity – and I am relatively fearless but bread has always intimidated me. It was too important and too difficult to ever really be done right: there is all that stuff about yeast and rising and pounding down and kneading and rolling and rising that made me think homemade bread was beyond my reach. I was so wrong. All those years wasted without homemade bread… alas. They are over now – fresh bread for everyone!!
First and foremost I must give credit to our wonderful friend, Rob, who first sent me this bread recipe years ago with an encouraging word of “I promise you can’t eff this up.” I realize there are many, many sentences below – not the best way to convey “quick” or “easy” but I swear – this bread is actually very simple. I’ve just included a lot of little steps and explanations so you know exactly what we did and how we did it. I want you to do well.
Rosemary Bread (From Mother Earth News and Rob)
Yield: 4 smallish loaves
3 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast ( about 1 1/2 packets)
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 1/2 cups unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour
A couple teaspoons dried herb (we used rosemary, but you can you whatever you like!)
Corn Meal for bottom of loaves
2 baking sheets
Dough Prep (15 minutes active; 2 hours to rise)
1. In a microwave-safe bowl combine 2 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary (you can add more depending on your tastes) and 3 cups water. Heat water/herb mix in microwave to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1 minute in the microwave), this is just a little warmer than body temp. Add 1 1/2 packets of yeast and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt in a large bowl and stir. It may not all dissolve, but that is okay.
2. Next, mix in the flour. Don’t pack measuring cups tightly, just level off each cup with a knife and pour in. Mix until uniformly moist. I did this with a wooden spoon and it only took a minute or two. No need to get out the heavy equipment. However, if hand-mixing becomes too difficult, you can use wet hands to press it together but don’t knead!
3. Then comes the the hardest part – waiting. Cover bowl loosely (with cling wrap). Do not use an air-tight container – this could result in an doughy explosion all over your kitchen caused by all the chemical reactions and trapped gases. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flatten on top). This takes about two hours, depending on the room’s temperature. You can use the dough as soon as its risen or your can put in in the refrigerator and save it for later – either will give you fantastic bread although note that refrigerated dough is less sticky and easier to work with than room-temperature dough.
Baking Bread – finally! (15 minutes active; 40 minutes rise; 30 minutes bake)
Here is where our prep diverts slightly from Mother Earth – they used a pizza peel and a baking stone for making their bread. If you have such wonderful tools I would highly encourage you to use them. My humble kitchen, however, was without those so it was time to improvise! For the pizza peel we used a flat cookie sheet with no side edges and covered the top with tin foil. We replaced the baking stone with another cookie sheet.
1. Sprinkle your tin-foil-covered cookie sheet liberally with cornmeal. The meal will stick to the bottom of your loaf and, because its round, will allow you to easily slide the loaf off the cookie sheet into the oven when you are ready to bake. Don’t skimp on the corn meal, make sure you use enough!
2. Sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour, then cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece with a serrated knife. Add a little flour to your hands so the dough won’t stick. Then, holding the dough in your hands gently stretch the surface around to the bottom on four “sides,” rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go, until the bottom is a collection of four bunched ends. The bottom of the loaf will flatten out during resting and baking.
3. Place the ball on your prepared cookie sheet. Let it rest uncovered for about 40 minutes. Depending on the dough’s age, you may see little rise during this period; more rising will occur during baking.
4. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place your baking stone or second cookie sheet on the middle rack (this is what you’ll slide your bread onto). On another rack place an empty pan that will later hold water. We used an 8×8 metal pan on the bottom rack. Do NOT use a glass pan — the temperature is too high and the water can cause a glass pan to shatter.
5. Just before baking, dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour. Using a serrated knife, slash 1/4-inch deep across the top in whatever pattern suits your fancy – criss-cross, tic-tac-toe, scallops. This will allow your bread to expand when baking. You should be feeling like a real baker right about now.
6. With a back and forth motion slide the loaf off the tin-foiled cookie sheet and onto the cookie sheet waiting in the oven (if you didn’t use enough corn meal or it sticks, we found that a little gentle prodding with a spatula can get things moving again). Quickly but carefully pour about a cup of hot water into the waiting water-pan and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is slightly-browned and firm to the touch.
7. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack for best flavor, texture and slicing. But if you simply cannot wait – this bread is heavenly warm.
Keep the rest of your dough in the fridge an use as needed over the next two weeks. Supposedly the longer the dough is kept in the fridge, the more the flavor and texture improve, although I can’t confirm that because I’ve been unable to keep any unbaked dough for more than about 3 days!
The Mother Earth website offers lots of ways of adapting this basic bread recipe into whole wheat bread, sourdough bread (which I inadvertently tried when I left a batch of bread out overnight. Yay! Happy mistakes!), even pizza dough. I encourage you to check out their site!