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The Breaking of Bread

December 19th, 2014 by David L

You’ve set your holiday table.  You’ve painstakingly crafted a fabulous main course that will make your guests gasp, and there’s probably an elaborated cake or torte that will bring a tear to each person’s eye. I’m being overly dramatic here, but when I host a fete for the season of giving, I pull out all the stops. And then there’s the bread.

This always happens. I end up buying a sub-par baguette at the supermarket because I’m Italian and you MUST have bread on the table.  Of course, there are fantastic bakeries in Chicago, but it’s always an afterthought, somehow, in the plan.

I don’t think I’m alone in being a little daunted of making bread at home. Bread machines are expensive and don’t yield results like something handmade. There are also all kinds of extra steps in bread making, like adding a pan of water to the oven to create steam… it just seems like a lot of things can go wrong. But I was determined to climb that mountain.

I discovered the easiest way to bake bread is to use an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, such a Le Creuset 5.5 quart round (or like the one I have, which is made by Lodge). Basically, the dough steams itself, producing results like a professional oven, and you don’t need a baking stone since it cooks right in the pot. You are limited to one shape of bread, a boule, but it’s a great place to start.

This recipe comes from Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio, which I highly recommend.

Basic Bread Dough

Active Time: 25 min

Total Time:  3 hours

4 cups bread flour

12 ounces water

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon active or instant yeast

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Add the yeast to the water and allow it to dissolve. Add the salt to the flour, and then add the water mixture.

If you have a kitchen mixer, you can use the paddle attachment to initially mix all the ingredients until combined, and then switch to the dough hook to finish mixing the dough. I do not have a mixer, so I mixed everything a wooden spoon, and then kneaded the dough on the counter. It should be smooth and elastic (if you can tear off a piece and stretch it into a thin sheet of dough, it’s ready). It took about 10 minutes, and a slight case of carpal tunnel, to get to that point.

Leave the dough in the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it sit until it has doubled in size. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, the time will vary. Press your finger into the dough: if it feels tense and springs back, then let it sit for longer; but keep in mind that if it gets too loose it won’t rise as well when it bakes.

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Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead it a few times, then cover it with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 10-15 minutes.  To shape it into a boule, you can push it on the counter in circular motion until it’s a round, smooth ball. If you’ve made pizza dough and rolled it into a tight ball, it’s the same thing. For some reason, I didn’t really get those directions and ended up with a more loose, flatter dough. One of those things you realize after the fact.

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Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Oil the inside of your Dutch oven and put the dough inside. Cover it with a kitchen towel and allow it to rise or “proof” for an hour. Brush the top with oil and sprinkle with some coarse salt, if desired. You also want to score an “X” or “#” on the top to help it expand.

Bake, with lid on, for 30 minutes. Take the lid off, and bake for another 15-30 minutes (or until the internal temperature is 200-210 degrees F).

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I was pretty excited when fresh, delicious-looking bread came out of my oven! While it’s not exactly a snap to make, it’s pretty doable (and it tasted amazing). Plus, you can add all kinds of things to this basic recipe and make different breads. Just add after the initial ingredients are combined, but before you start kneading:

  • Olive Walnut Bread: 1 cup of chopped Kalamata olives and ¾ cup of chopped walnuts
  • Garlic Rosemary Bread: 1 ½ chopped rosemary and 1 head of roasted garlic cloves
  • Whole Wheat Bread: Use half whole wheat flour and half bread flour, and add ¼ cup of wheat germ for fiber

So, what are you waiting for?  Those guests are going to want YOUR fresh-made bread with dinner!

Want more bread-making fun? Watch Shelley’s video on How to Make Dinner Rolls.

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David LaRocco is a retail trainer at The Chopping Block. He grew up in South Florida and started cooking in his family's Italian restaurant as soon as he could roll a meatball. He is a singer/songwriter, loves to paint and finds the most truth to be in buddhist meditation and yoga. He lives in Chicago with a loving partner and two totally insane cats.

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