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Most of us have heard bread referred to as the staff of life, a metaphor overflowing with truth.  In his documentary series "Cooked" (available on Netflix), Michael Pollan devotes one of the four episodes to bread, and makes, almost casually, the observation that given only grain and water a person cannot long survive, but given flour and water he can do quite well since he can make bread.
 
Simply put, bread is nothing more than flour and water, with perhaps a little salt.  Given this simplicity, bread is not the bug-a-boo that I had always thought it to be.  Bread is, believe it or not, quite easy to make and bake; and it's a blank canvas on which you can express yourself almost without end.  Don't believe me?  Here's my recipe for a traditional loaf, rustic or otherwise.  Flatbread follows.
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Lamar's Basic Bread Recipe

INGREDIENTS
 
3 cups all purpose flour,
1-3/4 tsp salt,
1/2 tsp (heaping) active dry yeast, and
1-1/2 cups of water, at room temperature.
 
DIRECTIONS
 
In a large bowl mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, and yeast) together with a whisk.  Mix in the water using a dough whisk or the dough hook attachment for your stand mixer to blend until well combined.  I like to coat the inside of another large bowl with olive oil and transfer the dough to the coated bowl; it will be easier to handle once it's time to get it ready for the oven.  Cover the bowl and allow it to sit at least 12 hours.  I like to prepare bread late afternoon or early evening with the goal of baking it the next morning.  I also like to put mine in the oven with the light on (you don't need to leave the light on for 12 hours; just the first hour or so works) - it keeps it away from the temperature variances associated with air conditioning, and also provides a modicum of warmth from the light to get things going.
 
When you're ready to cook, place a covered Dutch oven or covered cast iron loaf pan in your oven and preheat to 450 degrees.  Staub makes a really nice heirloom quality 
cast iron covered loaf pan if you're dead set on a loaf that looks like the loaf your accustomed to at the grocery store; it's also better if you're going to make sandwiches with your bread.
 
Flour your work surface (I use a large piece of parchment paper since the texture of the paper helps to ensure that the whole work area holds flour; if I'm making more than one I'll get out a large jelly roll pan which I generously fill with flour and use that).  Remove the dough from the bowl (a bowl scraper is an invaluable assist at this point), putting it on the floured work surface, and with floured hands form it into a ball (or a loaf, if using a loaf pan).  No kneading is required, though you may want to fold it a couple of times to get the shape you want.  Place the dough in the bottom of your Dutch oven or loaf pan, taking care not to burn yourself as the oven/pan and lid are very, very hot.  Bake for 35 minutes with the lid on; remove the lid and bake another 10-15 mins until the bread is golden brown.  At the end of this time you can thump the top of the loaf and get a beautiful hollow sound that say's "I'm ready". Remove all from the oven and place on a cooling rack until the bread is cool enough for you to lift it from the Dutch oven or flip it out of the loaf pan.
 
Easy, huh?  And you'll be amazed how good your kitchen smells, in addition to taking great pride in that golden loaf of goodness you just made yourself.  Have some butter handy - you'll probably not be able to resist fresh, warm bread with melted butter.

Variations on a theme

It's really quite easy to develop an extensive ​repertoire of breads, now commonly referred to as artisanal breads.  The way to do this is to add your favorite herbs, spices, and other ingredients, all the while keeping a watchful eye to maintain the wet/dry ratio of the basic recipe.  For instance, if you decide to try for some whole wheat bread you should know that most whole wheat breads are not, as you might think, 100% whole wheat flour; they are usually (in my experience) comprised of a mixture of all-purpose and whole wheat flours, roughly 3 parts all-purpose to 1 part whole wheat flour.

The process is the same; it's the ingredients that change.  Pick a favorite from one of my posts and have some fun.

BREAD

Icelandic Rye ("geyser") Bread -

so named because in Iceland it's cooked in the ground by water above boiling temperature by reason of geothermal actitivity, and for 24 or so hours. Oviously our kitchens are not equipped to duplicate those conditions, but this recipe replicates the taste and texture of the original.  Simple ingredients make for a dense, moist, bread that is great at breakfast with butter, jams, and jellies, and is equally at home on the cocktail buffet with butter or cream cheese and thinly sliced smoked fish - salmon and trout most frequently.
INGREDIENTS

3 cups (310 grams) rye flour
1.5 cups (180 grams) whole wheat flour
2-1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup (250 grams) golden syrup (or dark corn syrup)
3 cups + 2 tbsp (750 ml) buttermilk
1 tbsp honey

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 210 deg.

Lightly butter a standard loaf pan (or, if you have it, a Pullman loaf pan that has a sliding lid).

In a large bowl, stir together the flours and baking soda to combine.

In a second large bowl combine the syrup, buttermilk, and honey.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix gently until just combined.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan, being sure not to fill the pan more than half way.  You may have some extra batter, which can be discarded or used for a second loaf. If using a Pullman loaf pan, slide the lid on; if not, cover the top with heavy foil.

Bake in the oven for 6 hours and 30 minutes. If you get busy and forget, an hour or two longer is not going to hurt; the bread may be slightry drier, but it will still be very good. May be served warm or cooled. It will cut best with a sharp knife using a downward motion; it does not work well with serrated bread knives as it's too moist.

SERVING SUGGESTIONS

Serve at breakfast/brunch with butter and a selection of jams, jellies, preserves, or marmalade. Can also be served at breakfast/bunch with cream cheese and smoked salmon or trout.

Serve as an appetizer with butter or cream cheese and smoked salmon or trout.  Toasting before preparing will make it stiffer if you feel it's too 'loose' to use as a canape.
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Quick, easy, and crisp flatbread.


INGREDIENTS

1-3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil

DIRECTIONS

Place a heavy baking sheet or baking stone on
the middle shelf of your oven and preheat to
450 deg.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt to combine, then make a well in the middle.

Add the water and oil to the well, and working from the center, gradually stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until a dough forms.  Turn the dough out onto your counter or marble board and knead the dough gently 4-5 times to get a uniform consistency.  The olive oil in the dough should keep it from sticking to either you or your work surface.  Keep a bench scraper handy, just in case.

Depending on the size of the flatbreads you're wanting, divide the dough into 3-4 pieces and wrap each piece in plastic wrap.  Let them rest for 30 minutes or so, putting any you're not using right away into the refrigerator. (This resting is not only good for the dough, it also makes time for your oven to get good and hot.

Unwrap the first piece and place it on a parchment round - 9-12" is more than sufficient.  Using either your hands or a rolling pin (in the latter instance you'll want to put some parchment on top to eschew the dough sticking or becoming difficult to manage), spread the dough into a rough round or oblong shape, working it outward until the desired shape and thickness are attained.  Don't deprive yourself and really have some fun at this juncture by using  your hands.  It's a great tactile experience and very theraputic.

Slide the dough, still on the parchment round, onto the preheated baking stone or sheet and bake until a pale gold color; the flatbread will be a darker brown on the characterist 'hills' that form as it cooks.

Once done, transfer the flatbread to a cooling rack and remove the parchment round (and yes, it will have darkened in the process of baking, but worry not).  Once cool you can store it in an airtight container for a couple of days if you're not planning to use it right away.
​​​​​​​Variety - the spice of life.

For a softer top finish, brush the top with olive oil before baking.

For a more savory product, brush the top with olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary or your favorite herb mixture, gently pressing it into the dough before baking.  In this case you may want to break the bread before serving, and consider pairing it with yogurt or hummus or any other favorite.

As a tasty side to any salad, sprinkle with sea salt flakes (or a flavored finishing salt), and again, press it gently into the dough before baking.

Again, fun, and a delicious side or 'edible plate' is the goal.
Popovers

Few things provide as much visual glamour to a table as popovers. Whether prepared plain or with herbs or spices, they almost aways elicit an expressoin of awe whenever they are on the table. And, they are remarkably easy, expecially if you have a blender.  Here goes!!!
INGREDIENTS​

4 large eggs, warmed in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes before cracking
1 1/2 cups milk (skim, low-fat, or full-fat), lukewarm
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons melted butter

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Position your rack on a lower shelf so that the tops of the fully risen popovers will be about midway up the oven. What you don't want is for the tops of the popping popovers to be too close to the top of the oven, as they'll burn. Make sure the oven is up to temperature before you begin to make the popover batter.

Use a standard 12-cup popover pan (or in a pinch, a metal muffin tin), one whose cups are close to 2 1/2" wide x 1 1/2" to 2" deep. Grease the pan thoroughly, covering the area between the cups as well as the cups themselves. 

First Method - the most traditional.

Use a wire whisk to beat together the eggs, milk, and salt. Whisk until the eggs and milk are well combined, with no streaks of egg yolk showing.

Add the flour all at once, and beat with a wire whisk until frothy; there shouldn't be any large lumps of flour in the batter, but smaller lumps are OK. OR, you can use a stand mixer equipped with the whisk attachment, and whisk at high speed for 20 seconds. Stop, scrape the sides of the bowl, and whisk for an additional 20 to 30 seconds at high speed, until frothy.

Stir in the melted butter, combining quickly.

Second Method - the easiest.

Put the eggs, milk, and salt in the container of your blender.  Blend until the eggs and milk are well combined, with no streaks of egg yolk showing.

Add the flour all at once, and blend until well combined and frothy.  If you see that your flour has clumped on the sides of the container, stop blending and scrape down the sides, then continue.

Once the flour is fully incorporated, blend in the melted butter, combining quickly.

Both methods - baking the popovers.

Pour the batter into the popover or muffin cups, filling them about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

Make absolutely certain your oven is at 450°F. Place the pan on a lower shelf of the oven . Bake the popovers for 20 minutes without opening the oven door. Reduce the heat to 350°F (again without opening the door), and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the popovers are a deep, golden brown. If the popovers seem to be browning too quickly, position an oven rack at the very top of the oven, and put a cookie sheet on it, to shield the popovers' tops from direct heat.

If you plan on serving the popovers immediately, remove them from the oven, and stick the tip of a knife into the top of each to release steam and help prevent sogginess. Slip them out of the pan, and serve.


If you want the popovers to hold their shape longer without deflating and settling quite as much, bake them for an additional 5 minutes (for a total of 40 minutes) IF you can do so without them becoming too dark. This will make them a bit sturdier, and able to hold their "popped" shape a bit longer.