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May 19, 2009 - Eric Paddock
Yep. I know I haven't written anything in a while. Well, neither has J.D. Salinger, but it hasn't hurt his sales.

I'll get right to the point – Bread.

By all accounts, it was one of Jesus' favorite things. He fed hundreds of people with just a couple loaves. He gave it to his disciples as a symbol of his body at the last meal he shared with them. Although the Bible doesn't specifically relate it, he probably was adept at making it – I mean the old-fashioned way, not mystically.

I like it, too. Actually, I wish I liked it a little less, because it is a major contributor to the enemy that lives in my waistline.

I'm not talking about that mushy white stuff that you roll into a ball and throw at carp. I'm talking about all the great — make that GREAT — breads of the world. I know of no culture on earth that doesn't cook up some form of bread.

I have been making and ruining bread for years. I am in awe of those little old ladies who can churn out loaf after loaf of wonderful, airy flesh hidden inside tasty crust.

Usher me into a bakery where they are making artisan breads, and I'll have to give someone else my Discover card to save myself from bankruptcy. To me there is no better meal in the world than a good hearty stew and a crusty baguette to tear apart for clearing the bottom of the bowl.

But I have been less than successful at baking it myself.

Until recently, that is, when I found a recipe for French bread that even a bread klutz like me can manage. It's simple. It's cheap. And there's no excuse for paying three bucks for a decent loaf of bread.

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful spouse, who a couple years ago got me one of those KitchenAid stand mixers for my birthday. They're expensive as small appliances go, but worth every penny, especially if you use the following.

Here goes:

4 cups of bread flour 1 packet or equivalent of active dry yeast ½ teaspoon of vinegar ½ teaspoon of salt ½ cup warm water to bring the yeast to life olive oil for basting cool water

Dump the flour, salt and vinegar into the mixer bowl and using the bread hook and mixer on medium high aerate the mixture. Dump the yeast into the half-cup of warm (about 115 degrees) water and stir it to mix. Let it sit until it develops a creamy head. If it doesn't do this in a few minutes, throw it away and go buy some new yeast. If it proofs as promised, dump it into the flour with the mixer running on medium/low. Slowly add cool water to the mix until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Don't overdo the mixer part. Roll it out of the bowl onto a floured counter top and kneed it gently for just a couple minutes. Transfer the ball of dough to an oiled bowl, cover with a towel and allow nature to take its course for about an hour. It should double in size. Roll it back out onto the counter and cut it in half (for you have enough for two good French loaves). Coat a rolling pin with flour and gently roll the first half into a long oval about a foot and a half long, the dough should be about an inch thick. Fold the ends into the middle and then roll it lengthwise into a loaf. Pinch the ends and the seams shut. Do the same with the other half. Set them on a baking sheet and allow them to rise again – very important. They should almost double again. It is a lucky man who can see bubbles on his loaves before baking. Turn on your oven to 425 degrees. Put about an inch of water into a large heat-safe pan. Take a sharp knife – sharp, mind you – and make a couple shallow diagonal slits in the loaves. Brush the loaves with olive oil. When the oven is hot. Put the pan of water into the bottom of the oven – very important, the secret to that great crust. Give the water a couple minutes to start steaming. Put the loaves in the oven and bake for 20 minutes or until they are brown and sound hollow when you thump them. Turn them over and give them just a couple more minutes to crisp the bottom crust. Cool on a rack on the counter.

I had been trying too hard, filling my refrigerator with science projects that I thought were sourdough starters, poring through cookbooks and making bricks.

I've had good luck with this. It's not nearly as daunting as it appears in type. I hope you try it. Bread is something that ties us to our past perhaps more than any other food. When you “break bread” with friends, don't rely on carp food.


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