Some folks say that the only skill you need to throw a successful dinner party is the ability to bake decent homemade bread. The theory being that home-baked bread is so scrumptiously delicious that it will make everyone forget about the quality of the rest of the meal. The exact words, more or less, were that homemade bread had the power to “make you not give a rat’s ‘patootie’” about the rest of the meal.
A totally unscientific survey reveals this theory to be held true by a majority of people. Admittedly, the survey was a Facebook poll and the sample was small (22 respondents) but bread won by a vote of 13 to five, with three write-in votes for dessert and one for entree.
Probably in years past, bread would have done even better. Nancy Sussman voted “no” because she is gluten-free. Kelly Urban was concerned about guests who are gluten-free and though not a bread baker herself, happily accepts fresh bread from guests, and Scarlett Pierce acknowledged the existence of gluten-free diets but the aroma of fresh bread would be enough that she’d be willing to let gluten-free folks fend for themselves.
The aroma of baking bread also factored into Lois Draughn’s vote. She said it just says “welcome” and as long as there is good butter and nice wine, she’d show up. Jane Taylor seconds that real butter is mandatory. Scarlett Pierce recommends Amish roll butter or Irish Cream butter, but will happily accept a nice herbed olive oil for dipping.
Some bread-lovers do want a little something else to go with their bread. Dan Butner suggests a good antipasto plate and pretty much everybody stipulates there must be wine for bread to do its best work. Heather Elliot likes the three B’s — bread, butter and bubbly.
Omegia Seaford likes bread but feels the entree is very important. Kelly Urban also focuses on the entree and doesn’t want us to forget the table setting. Joe Walker wants to know just how bad the rest of the meal is going to be and Joy Billings puts it a little more bluntly. “I love bread but if you screw up the rest of the meal, bread won’t fill my pudgy butt.” Eva Winemiller thinks bread is nice and all, but doesn’t make a meal.
Heather Colvard is Team Dessert and Glenda Billings agrees. Joyce Jarrard suggests a nice cheesecake. Meanwhile, Joyce is not sure that she can time fresh bread coming out of the oven as guests arrive and still get her house clean.
But Joyce need not fear. A recipe follows for the unicorn of breads, bread that is quick and easy. A lot of people shy away from baking bread because it involves skills unique to breadmaking that they may not possess. Kneading is one. Figuring out the exact temperature of water to get yeast to work without killing it is another. How long to let it rise and at what temperature are other confusing concepts to the uninitiated.
Unlike the “no-knead” breads that have been making the rounds for the last few years, this one doesn’t need a slow rise in the refrigerator of 12 to 24 hours, making it quick as well as easy. Instant yeast makes proofing unnecessary. Lesaffre Saf-Instant yeast, the brand preferred by most skilled bakers, is available locally at Mill Creek General Store at $4.29 for a pound container. That will bake a lot of bread.
Bread recipes typically give a water temperature or give some vague description like warm but not too hot so the newbie baker never knows if he is going to scald the yeast to death or never get it warm enough to rise. Just pour a half cup of boiling water into a cup and a half of cold water and you’ve got the perfect water temperature. Problem solved.
And how warm is a warm area for the dough to rise? Turn on your oven for one minute and turn it off. Let the dough rise in there. You’ll be good. And baking the bread in a couple of one quart Pyrex bowls will make loaves that kind of look like boules but don’t need any complicated shaping.
This peasant bread has a nice, fluffy open crumb and a crust like a sandwich bread. Not a crackly baguette crust. That’s a little trickier to accomplish but you and your guests will be slathering butter on this stuff so fast, you won’t miss it. Work up to that and maybe throw out some marmalade for the dessert fiends.
If you’re still not convinced you can bake bread, maybe you have a friend like Amy Walker who says, “I could never throw a dinner party. It would just be too much trouble. But if you throw one, I’ll bring the bread.”
Sounds like a plan.
No-Knead Peasant Bread
Makes two 14-ounce loaves
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. sugar
2 ¼ tsp. instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water, made by mixing 1/2 cup boiling water with 1 1/2 cups cold water
Softened unsalted butter, for greasing
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and instant yeast. Add the water. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the water is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball. (If you need to use active dry yeast instead, proof it in the lukewarm water first for about 10 minutes, until foamy, before adding to the other ingredients.)
Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk. (Use this trick if you like.) Set the oven to 400° F and let it preheat for 1 minute, then shut it off. The temperature will be between 80° F and 100° F. you should be able to place your hands (carefully) on the oven grates without burning them.
Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425° F. Grease two 1-quart oven-safe bowls, like Pyrex with softened butter—be generous.
(If the following technique for separating the dough into two greased cooking bowls sounds too complicated, don’t bother. Just divide the dough into the two containers, much the same as you’d divide cake batter between two pans.)
Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl quarter turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball. Using your two forks and working from the center out, separate the dough into two equal pieces. Use the forks to lift each half of the dough into a prepared bowl. If the dough is too wet to transfer with forks, lightly grease your hands with butter or oil, then transfer half to a bowl. (If your dough drops and breaks apart on the transfer, don’t worry, just divvy the dough between the bowls and it will come back together as it rises.) Do not cover the bowls. Let the dough rise on the countertop near the oven (or another warm, draft-free spot) for 10 to 20 minutes, until the top of the dough just crowns the rims of the bowls.
Transfer the bowls to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375° F and bake for 17 to 20 minutes more, until evenly golden all around. Remove the bowls from the oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If the loaves look pale, return them to their bowls and bake for 5 minutes longer. Let the loaves cool for 15 minutes before cutting.
Note: If you don’t have 2 one-quart bowls, you may use other vessels, though differences in pan sizes will affect the shape of the final loaves. This recipe can be adapted for 2 loaf pans (preferably 8.5 x 4.5-inch pans) by multiplying the quantities of ingredients by 1.5 (i.e. 6 cups flour, 3 cups water, etc.).
Once you’ve mastered the basic loaf — and let’s face it, you’re going to get it right the first time — there are endless variations. Here are three.
Add 1/2 cup red quinoa and 1/4 cup flaxseeds to the dry ingredients before you mix in the liquid.
Add 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh rosemary, 3/4 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives and 1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion.
Cheesy Cheddar and Parmigiano
Add 1/8 teaspoon cayenne to the dry ingredients, then stir in 1 1/2 cups of grated cheddar and 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan. Finish with a dash of Tabasco when you mix in the lukewarm water.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.