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Best Bread (for the Novice)

If you do not have a plastic dough blade for your food processor, make this bread the traditional way -- with your hands. Food processor blades made of steel tear the gluten strands of the dough, resulting in a weaker texture. The metal blade can also overheat, killing the yeast -- which means your bread won't rise as high as it should.

3 1/2 cups of bread flour, plus an extra tablespoon or two (approximately 14 1/2 ounces all together
1 cup (4 ounces) whole-wheat flour
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 packet ( 1/4 ounce) dry active yeast
1 1/3 cups (10 3/4 fluid ounces) lukewarm water

Put the bread flour, whole-wheat flour, salt and yeast into a food processor fitted with a plastic dough blade. Pulse the motor briefly to combine the ingredients. With the motor running, pour the water into the food processor in a thin stream. You want to do this slowly so that the dry ingredients have ample time to absorb the water.

Once you've poured in all the water, the dough should begin to gather itself into a rough ball (this may begin to take place before you've poured in all the water). If this doesn't happen soon after you've poured in all the water, stop the motor and remove the lid. Eyeball the dough. If it looks sort of dry still, you can add another teaspoon or two of water, pouring it in wherever it's likely to reach the bottom of the bowl.

Start the motor again, and let it run for no more than 30 seconds.

If the dough still hasn't gathered itself into a ball, go do something else for 5 minutes or so to give the dry ingredients some quiet time to reconsider the whole proposition and absorb the water.

Start the motor, and let the dough take 2 or 3 dozen whirls around bowl. Remove the lid and eyeball the dough again. It should look and feel smooth and elastic. If it looks or feels wet, add a couple of teaspoons of bread or whole wheat flour and pulse the motor briefly to help the dough absorb the flour. Remove the dough from the food processor, and allow it to rest for up to 10 minutes on a counter dusted with a little flour. (If you must leave it longer than this, drape a clean, damp towel over it so that the exterior of the dough doesn't dry out.)

Knead the dough 4 or 5 dozen times, folding it up and over itself always moving it slightly clockwise or counterclockwise with each kneading movement. This helps to develop the gluten, which is what gives homemade bread its structure and its deliciously chewy texture. Again, the dough should feel smooth and elastic.

Roll the dough in a little bit of flour, and put it in a medium-sized bowl, covered with a clean, damp tea towel or wrapped tightly in plastic.

The timing of everything is your choice: if you want, you can let the bread do its first rise overnight in the fridge and finish it tomorrow. I'm going to assume, though, that you want to eat bread today, so let it rise in the bowl in a non-drafty place until roughly doubled in bulk. Depending on the temperature of your home, this can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours.

Remove the dough from the bowl, and punch it down on the flour-dusted counter. Get rid of any and all air bubbles, and make the dough as flat as you can. Now fold the dough over itself several times, as though you're folding a big letter to try to fit it into a smallish envelope. I'm going to assume that you do just two rises, but if you want to let the dough rise more than that, repeat this and the previous two steps as many times as you want the dough to rise.

If you want a freeform loaf, you can let the dough do its final rise on an ungreased cookie sheet that's been liberally dusted with cornmeal or flour. If you want a loaf-shaped loaf, you can lightly grease and flour a loaf pan and let it do its final rise in there (see previous note about how long a rise can take -- it varies). If you want rolls, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and form whatever shapes you want, pinching together any seams and placing the rolls seam-side down on a cookie sheet prepared as noted above.

At least 20 minutes before you want to put the bread in the oven, set the oven rack on the lowest level and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Allow it to preheat fully; it's important for the dough to go from plain old room temperature to a blast of heat in order to create "oven spring," which is the final rise the yeast gives before the heat kills it.

You can leave the dough plain or slash it decoratively with a lame (a fancy French bread-slashing tool) or razor blade (knife blades generally aren't thin enough to do a decent job of this). If you decide to slash it and haven't done this before, bear in mind that the quicker your movements, the better. A slow slash will drag and pucker the dough.

Put 6 or 7 ice cubes into a mug and keep them by the oven. Now work as quickly as you can: open the oven door, put the bread on the bottom rack, and throw the ice cubes under the rack. The resultant steam helps create a crusty exterior to the bread. Of course, if you have a gas oven, you should take care not to throw the ice cubes directly onto the flames. Shut the oven door quick, quick, quick, and set the timer as follows:

For bread: 10 to 15 minutes at 450 degrees, followed by 30 to 35 minutes at 400 degrees (put a loose foil tent over the bread as soon as it reaches a color you like).

Makes 1 substantial loaf.


Ten to 15 minutes at 450 degrees, followed by 10 to 15 minutes with the oven turned off and the door closed.

Remove the bread from the oven and turn it out of the pan. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, or eat while still warm. (Even if you like it warm, though, let it cool at least 15 minutes before cutting into it; this will make cutting easier, and believe me, it will still be plenty hot.)

This bread keeps well only for a few hours. If you want to store it, allow it to cool completely and then put it in the freezer wrapped tightly in plastic. To reheat it, wrap it tightly in foil and warm it up in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour (the bread) or 25 minutes (the rolls).

Sunday, October 17, 1999

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