Back to the basics: bread baking 101
In Morocco, Bread can only be ripped, not cut with a knife: the act is considered too violent for the sacred food. While we may not hold ourselves to this standard of care when it comes to bread, we consider it a staple food, one that accompanies us and our families through our daily lives. The appreciation of bread is not unique to Morocco, however. When I lived in Berlin, bread-buying was a daily act of indulgence, a selective process of tasting and comparing freshly-baked breads. Unlike the thick white leavened bread that characterizes North African cuisine, Germans prefer their bread dark and heavy, whole-grain. It is typical to witness children exiting Parisian bakeries with fresh baguettes that they slowly devour on their walks home. And as the child of a man with southern roots, I know the centrality of hot cornbread complete with slabs of butter.
Bread is a basic whose soul we have somehow lost.
Bread in our supermarkets has lost a lot of its luster. It has become an accompaniment that carries other foods—a soup, a salad—rather than a celebration of life. Of course, prebaked and pre-sliced breads are anything but inspiring. The answer to this mediocrity is not to abandon bread, but to return to freshly baking bread at home. The task sounds daunting. I, myself, adorer of bread, avoided it until just this year. But then I found the surprising simplicity, joy and celebration of life accomplished in the baking of bread. We are mistaken in thinking that bread-baking takes a lot of time. It doesn’t. It takes some preparation and timing, in order to allow dough to rise, but many breads can be prepared in under 10 minutes of hands-on time; and many without kneading at all.
What you need? 1) A pizza stone. This maintains even heat throughout your oven and also provided the surface for baking most loaves or rounds of bread. 2) A pizza peel. This allows you to move your uncooked, shaped loaves onto the stone without ruining their shape (or burning yourself). These can be bought online or at local stones, often in combination. 3) Ingredients: the basics are yeast, flour, water. Of course, you can combine various flours and other grains. If you are my sister, Kat, you can harvest and grind your own wheat. If not, you can, like me, still make delicious bread.
This is one of my favorite beginner bread recipes, from the New York Times. I guarantee that you, like I, will succeed in beautiful pita breads on your very first try.
· 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
· ½ teaspoon sugar
· 35 grams whole-wheat flour (1/4 cup), preferably freshly milled
· 310 grams unbleached all-purposed flour (2 1/2 cups)
· 1 teaspoon kosher salt
· 2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Make sponge: Put 1 cup lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add the whole-wheat flour and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and whisk together. Put bowl in a warm (not hot) place, uncovered, until mixture is frothy and bubbling, about 15 minutes.
2. Add salt, olive oil and nearly all remaining all-purpose flour (reserve 1/2 cup). With a wooden spoon or a pair of chopsticks, stir until mixture forms a shaggy mass. Dust with a little reserved flour, then knead in bowl for 1 minute, incorporating any stray bits of dry dough.
3. Turn dough onto work surface. Knead lightly for 2 minutes, until smooth. Cover and let rest 10 minutes, then knead again for 2 minutes. Try not to add too much reserved flour; the dough should be soft and a bit moist. (At this point, dough may refrigerated in a large zippered plastic bag for several hours or overnight. Bring dough back to room temperature, knead into a ball and proceed with recipe.)
4. Clean the mixing bowl and put dough back in it. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, then cover with a towel. Put bowl in a warm (not hot) place. Leave until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
5. Heat oven to 475 degrees. On bottom shelf of oven, place a heavy-duty baking sheet, large cast-iron pan or ceramic baking tile. Punch down dough and divide into 8 pieces of equal size. Form each piece into a little ball. Place dough balls on work surface, cover with a damp towel and leave for 10 minutes.
6. Remove 1 ball (keeping others covered) and press into a flat diskc with rolling pin. Roll to a 6-inch circle, then to an 8-inch diameter, about 1/8 inch thick, dusting with flour if necessary. (The dough will shrink a bit while baking.)
7. Carefully lift the dough circle and place quickly on hot baking sheet. After 2 minutes the dough should be nicely puffed. Turn over with tongs or spatula and bake 1 minute more. The pita should be pale, with only a few brown speckles. Transfer warm pita to a napkin-lined basket and cover so bread stays soft. Repeat with the rest of the dough balls.