Peasant Bread

Bread seems like one of those things it should be pretty hard to screw up. I mean, it’s flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt. That’s all you really need. So I have to keep asking myself why my bread doesn’t turn out. When we lived in Olympia, I blamed it on the generally low ambient temperature – none of my doughs ever seem to rise enough, and came out way too dense.

I thought that would change once I got down to California. The ambient temperature in the bay area is pretty awesome, generally speaking, so the dough should rise pretty easily, right? No such luck. So I stopped attempting bread as I was obviously doing something wrong. Perhaps it was the temperature of the water that the yeast sits in to become active; perhaps it was the yeast itself. I’m betting on one or both of those, because when I tried this recipe, I busted out a new package of yeast I got in bulk, and that yeast was foaming in the water like there was no tomorrow. (I guess for them, there wasn’t >_>) I had previously been using the little envelopes, though at one point I had used a small jar of active dry yeast…

In any case, the recipe below is AMAZING. It’s a bit odd to handle – very wet, so you need to bake it in a container – but even that doesn’t deter me from wanting to make a couple of loaves EVERY DAY. I started a batch day before yesterday in the morning, but I seem to have not incorporated the flour and water together all that well because when I went to check on it, somehow a bunch of the water had separated to the bottom and it was just completely lost. I tossed that batch, and in the afternoon started another. I kind of forgot about it, so it sat for a good couple of hours before I headed to bed and had an oh-shit moment. I separated the dough into two pyrex bowls, covered them with plastic wrap, and tossed them in the fridge for their second rising. Even so, when I baked them yesterday morning, Mikal and I scarfed down one of the loaves as soon as we could get it out of the bowl. Even with over-proofing, it still came out light and fluffy, and the buttering of the bowl creates a wonderful crust – remember not to skimp on that, because it’s a beast to get out otherwise.

Peasant Bread

from Alexandra’s Kitchen

1lb 2oz all-purpose flour (approx. 4 cups)
2 tsp salt
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active-dry yeast

room-temperature butter, approx. 2 tbsp

A couple of notes: With the flour, the recipe specifies to go by weight, but if you can’t, you measure scant-cups of flour by scooping the flour into the measuring devices with another cup or spoon, then leveling off below the rim of the measuring device. As I have a scale at home, I just went with the weight measurement because it was much easier. 

Additionally, the recipe gives a wonderful tip for achieving the correct temperature for the yeast to have some fun in: boil some water, and add a half-cup of the boiled water to 1 1/2 cups cold water – it does seem to do the trick fantastically. 

Finally, there is a warning about the baking vessels: you do need to make sure to use two or more smaller bowls or whatever for the baking, as the dough is too moist/fragile to bake up well in the larger bowl. 

In a small mixing bowl, dissolve the sugar into the water. Sprinkle the yeast over the top. (The recipe then goes on to say that there is no need to stir it, but I found that if I just sprinkled it the yeast didn’t seem terribly active; with stirring, there was a party in that water in no time. Do whatever you are comfortable with.) Let stand for 10-15 minutes or until the mixture is foamy and/or bubbling just a bit. While this is happening, measure out the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Once the yeast mixture is ready, add to the flour mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Cover the bowl with a damp tea-towel or plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 1-2hrs until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Butter up two oven-safe bowls (this makes a couple of nicely-rounded loaves; I haven’t attempted to use a different pan, but you could undoubtedly use a loaf pan – I’m totally going to do that next). Using the spatula, punch down the dough, folding it in on itself. Divide the dough evenly between the two bowls. (This is where it’s a little odd to handle – you can just divide the dough in half and toss into the bowls – I had to finagle it a bit because it is that wet.) Let the dough rise for 30 minutes or until it has risen to around the top of the bowls.

Bake for 10 minutes at 425°F; reduce the heat to 375°F and bake for 22-25 minutes longer. Remove from oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If, for whatever reason, your loaves seem a bit pale once they are out of the bowl, stick them back in the oven without the bowls for 5 minutes or so.

As Mikal and I were eating that first loaf, I had a few different ideas of what to use the bread for: grilled cheese sandwiches, french toast, something else that has run away rom my mind… Just keep in mind that this bread is rather…soft. It’s probably not ideal for everyday sandwiches, or spreading peanut butter on. I may have to do a bit more experimenting to see if I can figure out how to make it just a bit more universally useable without messing with the simplicity of the recipe – because this is so simple I could easily make it every day.

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