Monday, October 17, 2011

"Italian-French" Bread

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian, wine and tarragon make it French, sour cream makes it Russian, lemon and cinnamon make it Greek, soy sauce makes it Chinese, garlic makes it good.” - Alice May Brock

What makes French bread, “French”?  Considering the Italian ciabatta bread encompasses essentially the same ingredients, I can’t say it’s the ingredients.  Also, while technique may differ in some French kitchens between some recipes and others, technique differs some in ALL kitchens simply because naturally, people do things differently; so I can’t say it’s the technique.  Again, I just have to ask: what is the definitive answer to my oh so simple question? 

After a healthy amount of research, scowering recipe after recipe, opinion after opinion, not to mention a few sleepless nights, I can confidently say with the utmost certainty… that I have absolutely no clue other than to say that French bread is French because it was initially made in France.  (This begs the question of course as to whether or not it should be called “American bread” when it is made in America, but then again, that opens its own can of worms and I digress.)

I once dreaded yeast breads, having the patience of a flea, but somewhere along the line the desire to find grander fields then that in which quick breads offered and I entered this wonderful world and was welcomed within its “poofy” embrace.  This is my own recipe, a labor of love, named “Italian” for its flavors and “French” because, as they say, “don’t fix something that ain’t broke.”  

1 tbsp sugar
2¼ cups warm water
1 tsp table salt
(or 2 tsp kosher salt)
1¼ tbsp dry active yeast
1 tbsp olive oil (or vegetable oil)
Garlic powder
Fresh ground pepper
Oregano flakes
Parsley flakes
1-3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
6¼ cups flour

Begin by dissolving the sugar in the warm water; a few moments of stirring should do the trick.  Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and let sit for 5-8 minutes or until yeast has “poofed,” creating a layer of foam.  Gently stir in the salt, olive oil and then seasoning to taste add the garlic, garlic powder, pepper, oregano, and parsley flakes.  Add 2 cups of the flour and mix well.  

Commit to getting a little messy, forgo the spoon and gradually add the rest of the flour.  Knead with the fervor of a purring kitten until you end up with a smooth ball of dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers and bounces back when given a gentle “Pillsbury Doughboy” poke.  Coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil  (or vegetable oil) and drop in your ball of dough, rolling it around and flipping it over to coat.  Cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm, dark place for an hour and a half.

"Pioneer Women," I Love Lucy. March 31, 1952.
It’s at this point that I always pause and picture that episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel, during one of their famous bets, bake a loaf of bread.  If you remember the episode, you’ll also remember that they completely misjudged how much yeast the recipe called for and end up in a scene worthy of any 1950s sci-fi thriller.  This mental image always causes me to think back and reevaluate just how much yeast I used.

After passing the time as you so please (three whole episodes of “I Love Lucy” will do the trick) the dough should have doubled in size and you are ready to work with it.  Separate the dough into two pieces and shape roughly into “loaf” shape (this is pretty much up to you; want round, go round, want long, go long). Place each loaf a few inches apart on a lightly greased or cornmeal dusted cookie sheet.  Once again cover with a dish towel and set aside to rise for another tedious 45 minutes (or another episode and a half).

Again the dough will have grown, a science experiment in action, and you will next need to pre-heat your oven to a toasty 425 degrees.  With a sharp knife, lightly slash diagonal lines across the top of each loaf (room to grow, so to say).  Place an oven safe ramekin with water on the cookie sheet or another rack to help prevent the bread from drying out while baking.  Bake for thirty minutes or until golden brown.

In my experience, a bread knife creates more mess than it’s worth, so I rely on my trusted and preferable chef’s knife to slice the heat kissed goodness that is a fresh, home baked loaf of bread.  So after what seems like another long, but last eternity (at least fifteen to twenty minutes) the bread is ready to slice, so do just that and serve how you please.  Bon appétit!

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