Thursday, August 9, 2012
Seeking the Perfect Loaf: Italian Rosemary Bread
Riuscire meglio a pane che a farina. [To succeed more with the bread than with the flour, i.e. to have more success than expected.]
You could say that this Italian proverb, which I found at the beginning of Carol Field's The Italian Baker (sadly, I speak no Italian), has been the overarching theme of the week. First, there was the cake that I baked on Saturday that fell apart as I attempted to flip it (I was rushing and, as they say, haste makes waste). Although I had made this cake many times before, this was the first time this had happened. After lamenting and cursing the fallen cake, I gathered my kitchen wits about me and realized that, in such cases, the obvious answer is trifle. I never would have thought it was possible, but I think the cake is even better when crumbly bits with layers of whipped cream and raspberries. Mistakes really can lead to the darnedest discoveries.
Then, there was the small fact that the Greek and I decided to get a puppy (in this somewhat grainy iPhone photo, meet Elektra/Ellie, the baby beagle that stole our hearts). We talked, then talked some more, drove to Antioch, saw the puppy and basically made up our minds then and there. But we had to inform the building manager, who then told us we'd have to consult the building owner directly. Surprisingly, even though there are other dogs in the building, he told us no. This was last night and it was a dark and sad evening for us both. I was devastated, but prepared to give up since, as much as I loved this little beagle face, I didn't want to be evicted or have to move; the Greek, however, rallied his fighting spirit and decided to give it one more go by calling again this morning. Twenty minutes later the phone rang and it turned out that the building owner had changed his mind: we could get the dog after all. I don't know what brought him around, but I'm glad he reached the decision that he did. We bring her home tomorrow!
In between all of the cake and dog drama, I decided to press my luck even more by baking bread. Although I've watched my grandparents make perfect loaves for most of my life, this is not something I'm personally experienced at; to be completely honest, I've never even attempted to make Jim Lahey's famous no-knead bread. In part I think it's because as much as I enjoy baking, bread has just never seemed all that exciting to me. Sweet things have always appealed to me more. So, rather than make the bread that I love to eat---baguettes, dark walnut loaves, herb focaccia--I find myself buying it instead. Making it at home has always seemed either like a hindrance or like something that just wouldn't turn out the way I hoped it would.
But, recently, I started thinking more and more about baking bread, wondering how hard it would actually turn out to be. I had the feeling that all along I had been making something rather simple seem more complicated in my mind. After all, what could be more elemental and basic than flour, liquid and yeast? I realized, however, that I lacked a book on bread making; even some of the mammoth cookbooks I have, Vefa's Kitchen and The Essential New York Times Cookbook, contain only a few bread recipes each. A researcher at heart, I started exploring my options: Nancy Silverton, Chad Robertson, Rose Levy Beranbaum? Who would be my bread guru? Ultimately, I decided to stick to the basics and follow Amanda Hesser's advice in the Essential NYTimes book: to use Carol Field's The Italian Baker. Even though the first edition came out in 1985 and bread making has changed a lot since then, it seemed that the book was a solid guide to baking beautiful and interesting loaves of Italian bread. In a way, I even found the retro cover, a true example of old-school food photography, to be a welcome change; I love taking pictures of food and so many cookbooks today contain one beautiful snapshot after another, but there's something to be said for words--stories, advice, methodology. It was a wonderful purchase.
Her advice to the new bread baker is to start with pani nuovi (new breads), and, as I perused that section, my eye fell on the recipe for Rosemary Bread. But it was the story next to the recipe that convinced me: "Years ago, while reading a biography of the d'Este family who once ruled Ferrarra, [the baker Luciano Pancalde] discovered that one of the numerous spectacular court banquets featured a rosemary bread with a crust described as sparkling with diamonds." Bread that sparkled?! As a lover of shiny things, I realized I had met my bread match.
And not only was it surprisingly simple to make--even the kneading was not as fearsome as people have made it out to be--but the end result was also wonderfully fragrant and with a texture (crisp and golden on the outside and softly chewy on the inside) that could rival any loaf at the supermarket. It's really the salty sparkle on the top that makes it, though. The sea salt transforms the flavor of the rosemary, while adding a bit of crunch. Considering I thought my first loaf of bread might end up a tough little thing with minimal flavor, perhaps even a brick that might be better suited for breadcrumbs or the birds, this was a more than pleasant outcome.
And since I want to learn more about bread and try some of the different methods out there, I've decided that a goal for the next few months is to chronicle my adventures with bread baking. I'll aim to post about bread 1-2 times a month (obviously, this depends on how the semester treats me). A friend has let me borrow a few of her bread baking books and I've already tagged more gems in The Italian Baker, so there is no shortage of inspiration! This will keep me on my toes and allow me to develop a bread-baking repertoire; also, while the bread does its thing, it will be an opportune moment to take the dog for a walk. In my new life with beagle, bread may just end up being my new best friend.
Italian Rosemary Bread
Yields one large sparkling loaf
Adapted from Carol Field's The Italian Baker
The original recipe would have yielded two loaves of bread. Because I was unsure about the end result and didn't want to risk wasting so much flour, I decided to halve the recipe. This did lead to a difficult moment when I was first mixing the dough: it simply wasn't coming together and, rather than stick to the original measurements, I had to trust my baker's instinct and add both a little more olive oil and water. If you try this and something doesn't seem right, add small increments of water and oil until things come together.
Also, despite my best efforts to equip myself properly, I ended up buying the wrong yeast. Instead of active dry or small cakes, I bought rapid-rise. This simply changed the order in which I added the ingredients since rapid-rise yeast shouldn't be mixed with water; it should be mixed with the dry ingredients instead. I will give you the recipe I used, however. I just wanted you to be aware of the changes.
1/2 cup warm water (plus more if the mixture seems dry)
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil (plus more if the mixture seems dry)
1 packet rapid-rise yeast
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons salt
450 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, for the top of the loaf
-Stir the water, milk and oil together in a small bowl.
-Whisk together the flour, yeast, salt and chopped rosemary in a large bowl.
-Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients in 3-4 additions, stirring until the dough comes together. If the dough seems dry, add more water and olive oil in small increments. These amounts should not exceed 1/3 cup and 1/2 teaspoon, respectively.
-Once the dough has formed, knead on a floured surface for about 6-8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and slightly moist; it should also be soft to the touch.
-Coat the bottom of a bowl with olive oil and then add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 1 1/2 hours or until doubled.
-Once the dough has risen, gently punch it down on a lightly floured surface, but do not knead it.
-Shape it into a ball and place the loaf on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Then, cover it with a towel and let rise for about 45-55 minutes (do not let the dough again double in size).
-Heat the oven to 450 F.
-Place the loaf on either a baking stone (this is what I used) or baking dish that has been lightly sprinkled with cornmeal.
-Slash an asterisk into the top of each loaf with a razor blade or a sharp knife (I used the latter, but think that the former would be preferable). Then sprinkle the sea salt into the slashes and across the top of the loaf.
-Bake for 10 minutes, spraying with water (since I lack a kitchen spray bottle, I simply used the remaining rosemary stalk, which I had rinsed in cold water. Then, I shook the stalk into the oven; it was certainly a fragrant way of spritzing!) about every 3 minutes.
-Then, reduce the heat to 400 F and bake for about 25-35 minutes (my oven's temperature didn't decrease as quickly as I would have liked, so I ended up baking the bread for only about 25 minutes), or until golden.
-Cool completely on rack.
-Enjoy with meat, feta and tomatoes, or just plain old butter. It's a bread that enhances each and every meal.