Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Make Bread

"Two loaves have I, of comfort and despair..."
"The best thing since sliced bread," people say. But do they really mean it? If, perhaps, the bread to which they refer was freshly baked, then I am inclined to agree. And bread is incredibly easy to make in the home. It certainly wasn't hard for early humanity to put together, and neither will it be hard for you or me. The only thing is... finding all that time to wait for the dough to rise.

Temporal issues aside, you only need water, flour, yeast, and a pair of hands to put a loaf of bread together. (And yet, look at the ingredients label on supermarket bread, and you'll see all manner of scientific-sounding items.) Yeast, the only ingredient that might not be in your fridge this moment, is easily obtainable from the grocery store. Find it in little packets in the baking aisle. There are a few different kinds; my recommendation is instant yeast, since you can just mix it in with the dry goods and call it a day.

This is my favorite bread combination. It also doubles as my pizza dough. (Versatile stuff!)

A note on flour: For this particular recipe, it isn't all that important what kind (or kinds; mixing is allowed) of flour you use. All-purpose flour works perfectly fine, but bread flour will give you a softer, chewier bread. I often use ½ to 1 c. of whole wheat flour as part of the mix.

This dough has come together.
Mix together 3½ c. flour (see above), 1 tbsp. salt, 1 tbsp. sugar, and 2½ tsp. instant yeast (one packet). To this, add 2 tbsp. olive oil (extra virgin is nice) and 1⅓ c. warm water (use water you would drink). If you have a stand mixer, use the dough hook and mix on low until it comes together, then set it on medium-low to knead about 10 minutes, until the dough is soft and stretches without breaking. Or, you can mix by hand until it comes together, then knead on a floured countertop until dough is soft and stretches without breaking.

A note about countertops: It is perfectly fine to put food items directly on a countertop as long as you keep it clean and sanitized. Clean means no crumbs, drips, or other grodiness. Use soap and water. Sanitized means spraying with white vinegar, counting to ten, then wiping with a clean cloth (a method I much prefer over using chemical sanitizers for what I hope are obvious ingestion-related reasons). As a side note, don't use your countertop as a cutting board (unless it's made of butcher block or something). But do use it to knead bread.


I let my bread rise fireside.
Future bread.
Once your dough is ready, get a medium or large mixing bowl and coat it with olive oil. Toss the ball of dough in it (to coat the dough), place a clean cloth atop, and set it somewhere warm, around 75°F, to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size. (I spray the top of the cloth with some water because I live in a dry climate, so my dough tends to dry out.) Now, go work on that monologue!

Now that you've spent an hour on Facebook (oops!), make sure your countertop is still sufficiently floured, and prepare whatever vessels you'll be baking in or on by spraying or brushing with olive oil (and, optionally, sprinkling with cornmeal). You can use a round pan, a square pan, a loaf pan, or even just roll the dough into a ball and put it on a sheet pan. The possibilities are as endless as your supply of bakeware. Anyway, punch down the dough and turn it out onto the counter, forming it back into a ball. Now take a bowl scraper, a spatula, or some other knife-like thing that isn't a knife and divide the dough in half. Put each half in its place, cover with a clean cloth, and let rise for another hour or until doubled. Take a stab at that monologue again. (Ooh! Modern Family is on...)

Stretch or mold dough to fit pan.
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Brush some olive oil (extra virgin) on top of the dough and, if desired, sprinkle on any number of toppings, including coarse salt, dried herbs (thyme, oregano, basil, etc.), and/or grated hard cheese. Finally, after all this waiting, stick it in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes. Cool the bread on a rack.

Bread can be stored in a paper bag (about 2-3 days), in a plastic zip-top bag in the pantry (7-10 days), or wrapped in aluminum foil in a plastic zip-top bag in the freezer (??? days). Do not store your bread, or anyone's bread, in the refrigerator; it dries out. To thaw frozen bread, remove from plastic bag (but not from foil) and stick it in a 400°F oven for about 10-15 minutes.

But, seriously. The monologue.

Title inspiration: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard. Premiered at Cranston Street Hall in Edinburgh on 24 August 1966, presented by the Oxford Theatre Group as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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