I have been baking bread since I was a very small child, and the smell of yeast brings me back to that childhood as surely as stuffed toys and dial-up internet.
French bread, the first bread I ever learned to bake is also my go-to choice when baking. I always have the ingredients for French bread on hand, and not simply because French bread only has about four ingredients.
As a child, I hated bread that was too sweet—and by too sweet, I mean any bread that contained any amount of sugar in it—and, so, French bread, with its usual lack of sugar was the obvious first choice in bread making.
French bread has always been my favorite yeast bread. Not rye, not multigrain, not fancy onion bubble loaves that are far too impractical to actually make, but my trusty French bread recipe.
And I’ve been using the same recipe for years.
This is the recipe I used to teach my slightly kitchen-ignorant friend how to make bread, and the recipe I used to mess around with in the kitchen as a kid. And, perhaps most important, it is the recipe I still use to this day.
After all this time, I can list the ingredients off the top of my head—six cups flour, one and a bit cups of warm water, two packets of yeast and kosher salt.
But knowing the easy ingredients to this bread does not mean that it is simple. Or, rather, it is simple, but also susceptible to minute changes in technique that can cause a wide variation in the end result.
Sometimes I can manage to force all six cups into the dough, and other days I have to settle for a bit over five. Sometimes it bakes up beautifully, and sometimes it is inexplicably hard.
These variations, as well as the necessitation of precise technique, is what has always made the art of bread baking such a special experience for me.
Other than its nostalgia-inducing qualities, bread is something that takes a significant amount of time to master, and while I have been baking it for years, I still have come nowhere close to mastering it.
That is inconsequential to the joy of bread baking—the fun comes not in making and eating the perfect bread, though that is certainly a goal as well. The fun comes in the lengthy process by which one creates a loaf of yeasty, crusty carbohydrate-rich, bready goodness that most people, I would think, seem to love.
Waiting is an inevitability in any sort of baking, but yeast bread often gets a bad reputation because of the lengthy times that are an unavoidable part of making bread.
Bread baking is not for the impatient. Even after rising, the dough might still need more time to rise, and it will certainly need at least some time in the oven. I suppose two options are available to those getting through long rise times: You can either find something else to do, or just suck it up and deal with the waiting period.
I usually take the second option. Waiting is meditative, and, at least for me, is just one of the many benefits of baking yeast breads. I love sitting in the kitchen, listening to jazz and simply waiting.
Other times I do, I must admit, take the first option. Sometimes I need to make use of all the time I have to make another dish, or have an impromptu jazz or trashy pop music dance party.
But I prefer to wait. Waiting is a good skill to have, and I like to think that my bordering on the absurd fondness for making bread has taught me patience.
At the very least, it has made me patient about my bread making skills. I know that I am no master baker—well, not yet anyway. But with enough late nights and warm afternoons spent in a kitchen, with flour down my shirt and dough under my fingernails, one day I will be.
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 packets of active dry yeast
1 2/3 cups warm water (105-115°F)
1) Combine flour and salt.
2)Dissolve yeast into 1/3 cup water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
3)Using a food processor, combine yeast mixture and remaining 1 1/3 cups warm water into flour mixture, until dough pulls away from the sides.
4)Cover and let dough rise about 1 hour. Deflate dough before using.
5)Divide dough in two. Mold 1 half into a 10- by 8-inch rectangle and fold in the edges to the middle. Place seam side down and form into a 15-inch-long irregular-shaped loaf. Coat loaf in oil and place seam side down. Repeat.
6) Put in oven, with large roasting pan with 1 inch of water beneath it. Preheat oven to 450°F.
7)Make 3 slashes down length of the loaves. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove pan of water. Remove bread from pan and turn upside down on upper rack, then bake until golden and crusty. About 5 mintues.
8)Cool on rack before enjoying.