Friday, November 5, 2010
"If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
~ Robert Browning
The image above - Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin's The Return from the Market (1738) - has always been a favorite of mine, and for years I had a print of it in my kitchen. I love the way the woman is standing, leaning against the dresser for a minute with her armful of bread, and her heavy bag drooping from her other hand (ignore le pauvre coq, s'il-vous plait; it's the 18th century, and most people don't know any better!). Who doesn't feel like this when they've just walked in from shopping, thinking about putting all the stuff away, and then figuring out what to do with it? Fortunately, she's got a servant girl - I like to think of her as "Hortense" - and she's also laid in a couple humongous bottles of wine, so with any luck she can sit down, kick her pointy shoes off, and have a glass or two before moving on to the next thing.
But it's the bread that gives this painting its air of cozy domesticity: just look at it! Is there anything more beautiful than fresh loaves of crusty bread? I love a great bakery as much as the next carb-obsessed girl, but there's something about mixing, kneading, and baking your own bread that brings a profound sense of satisfaction; just the smell of it has the ability to transform a mere house into that most magical place, a home.
Of course, baking bread takes a little time and effort, things that are often in short supply, which is precisely why this recipe is so great: there may be faster, easier yeast-raised breads out there, but for my money, this is the one. It originated some years ago, as an herbless adaptation of Anna Thomas' "easy herb bread" recipe in The Vegetarian Epicure, but over time it has evolved into Something (Almost) Completely Different: the perfect all-purpose loaf. Not only does it slice beautifully right out of the oven, it's sufficiently versatile to meet all your bread needs: toast, sandwiches, breadcrumbs, croutons, an accompaniment to soup...it will accomplish all these things with style and aplomb! Best of all, it's the kind of recipe you can start at 5 o'clock on a busy afternoon, and still have fresh bread with your dinner a scant two hours later. I usually make two loaves at a time, but it's easily doubled or even trebled, if you want to make a whole bunch and freeze it (which it also does nicely).
So what are you waiting for? Allons-y! Roll up your sleeves and get busy!
~ 1.5 cups plain, unsweetened soy (or other non-dairy) milk
~ 1 cup vegetable broth or water
~ 2 package active dry yeast (2 tbsp.)
~ 1/4 cup sugar
~ 1/4 cup olive oil
~ 5.5 - 6 cups all purpose or whole wheat pastry flour (or a combination)
~ 2 tsp. salt
~ Heat the soy milk and broth to lukewarm (about 1 minute in the microwave).
~ Add the sugar and yeast; stir to combine and set aside about 5 minutes, until foamy.
~ In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the olive oil and salt, then add about 2 cups of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth.
~ Gradually add the remaining flour and mix until you have a soft dough (less than 5 minutes should do it).
~ Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for 5 more minutes, mixing in a little more flour as necessary to prevent it from sticking. The dough should be smooth and elastic.
~ Form the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl, flipping it once to coat it. Cover with a clean cloth or tea towel and leave it to rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes, until it has doubled in size.
~ Punch the dough down and knead again, briefly. Form 2 loaves and place them in oiled bread pans. Cover the pans and allow to rise again for 30 minutes.
~ Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when you turn it out and rap on the bottom with your knuckles.
~ Allow to cool briefly before slicing.