We are spoiled rotten here in the Bay area, where world-class artisanal breads (from Tartine, Acme, Della Fattoria, et al) are a dime a baker’s dozen. So spoiled, in fact, that it hardly ever occurs to me to bake bread at home, even though I find the results so delicious and the process so soothing. Kneading dough is just about the most meditative thing you can do with your eyes open, and there’s something profound about taking the most humble of ingredients and rearranging them into something special, the same way people have done for millennia.
Baking bread from scratch is a rainy day activity, since you’ll have to check in on the dough while you’re puttering around the house, but otherwise this is a straightforward recipe (novice bakers welcome!) with a very good result for a home oven. Adding a bit of steam to the proceedings (cookbook author Carol Field shares the genius trick of adding ice cubes to a sizzling-hot cast iron pan, then shutting the oven door) ensures a nicely browned, crackly-crisp crust. The interior baked up downy-soft, subtly fragranced with minced parsley, chives, onion and garlic, and made for killer toast the next day.
adapted from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker; makes two medium loaves
- 1/4 C chives, finely chopped
- 1/4 C packed Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons yellow onion, minced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- one package active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
- pinch sugar
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, divided
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 3/4 C (17.5 oz or 500 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp salt
- cornmeal, for dusting (optional)
- 1/2 C ice, for steaming
- optional equipment: spray bottle, baking stone, cast-iron pan
Mix the parsley, chives, garlic and onion on a cutting board and mince until well combined. Set aside. In a medium bowl, sift the flour and salt together; set aside.
Warm the water (110 degrees is the sweet spot; too hot and it will kill the yeast, too cool and they won’t reproduce). Sprinkle in the yeast with a pinch of sugar and let proof for 10 minutes until foamy and creamy-looking. (If your yeast doesn’t activate, it may be expired; toss out and try again with a new packet.) Place the yeast mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the oil and the herb mixture; paddle on low to combine. Add the flour, a cup at a time, and paddle on medium until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. (If there’s still stubborn shaggy bits at the bottom, stop the machine and smush them into the dough by hand.) Switch to the dough hook attachment (the s-shaped one) and knead on medium speed for 3 minutes. The dough should be springy, elastic and dense.
First rise: transfer the dough to a lightly oiled, large bowl and cover the dough with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm part of the kitchen until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. The dough will feel much more pillowy and soft to the touch.
Second rise: punch down the dough and knead for a minute or two. With a sharp knife, cut the dough in half and form into two round balls. Place them on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and spritz them with a bit of water from a spray bottle. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise until not quite doubled, about 40-45 minutes.
While the dough rises a second time, preheat the oven to 400 degrees; place a cast iron skillet on the lowest shelf and a baking/pizza stone on the rack above. (I usually let the dough rise on top of the stove, since it’s nice and cozy while the oven’s on.)
Sprinkle the pizza stone with a bit of cornmeal, re-spritz and transfer the loaves. After the loaves are in, add 1/2 cup of ice to the cast-iron pan and quickly shut the door; this will create steam, which helps form a good crust. Bake 40-45 mintutes, until the loaves make a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom, or reach an internal temperature of 190-200 degrees when tested with a probe thermometer. Let cool on a wire rack before slicing.
Note: if you don’t have a stand mixer, you can still make this bread; follow the recipe as is, but start by stirring the dough in a large bowl and then knead for 8-10 minutes by hand on a lightly floured surface. Don’t be tempted to use bread flour for this recipe (I was) as Field notes that traditional Italian loaves are made with much softer flour than our hearty American varieties. All-purpose is the way to go here. And for what it’s worth, I’m partial to King Arthur unbleached flour and Red Star brand active yeast.