by Madeline Laughs
Artisan breads are pretty, edible versions of just plain old bread. They look amazing. People will swear you slaved all day, but they are not as hard, or labor intensive, as you might think.
Years ago I remember talking to Mary Ann Esposito‘s producer on the phone about having her use a pasta I was importing on her PBS cooking show, Ciao Italia. She never used the pasta, but she did send me a beautiful collection of her cookbooks. And she autographed each one to me. These cookbooks are now dog-earred and stained because I use them so much.
My favorite one is called What You Knead and it’s about making breads.
The beginning of the book is excellent, especially if you’re new to making bread by hand. She goes through each step and explains how everything works and comes together. She tells you about the different tools you’ll need and how to properly proof your yeast. Proofing yeast can mean the difference between a good loaf and a flop.
Bread Machines are okay, but handmade bread has an entirely different flavor, it’s richer. Most folks don’t know how that happens, but bread out of a machine can have a bland taste. This is because the bread you make with your own hands, that rises out in the open in a warm spot underneath a tea towel, has the chance to absorb the natural yeasts in the air and flavors of your own kitchen. That’s why it tastes better.
I use her Basic Dough for my artisan breads. The one pictured here is one from her book, The Grapevine Loaf. She shows several other shapes you can try that might be easier, but I like to go for the toughest first.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Two big bowls, 1 small bowl, 1 packet of yeast, 4 to 5 cups of good flour (I use Harris Teeter’s brand and it’s excellent), salt, water, olive oil, a pastry knife, or a butter knife if you don’t have a pastry knife, cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, a tea towel, one egg, a fork and a pastry brush.
Open your yeast packet and in a small bowl combine the yeast with 1/2 cup of warm water. Make sure the water is no hotter than about 100 to 115 degrees or you’ll kill the yeast rather than activate them. If you want to have some fun, once you get them combined and active you can feed them a tiny pinch of sugar just to make sure they’re ready to do a good job.
When you see chalky bubbles forming on the top of the yeast, dump them and another cup and a 1/4 of lukewarm water, a tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt into one of your big bowls. I always add a bit more salt than this.
I like to use artisan salts in these loaves too. I got this wonderful jar of Outer Banks sea salt for Christmas this year. It’s made on Colington Island at the Outer Banks Epicurean (click the link to visit their website) and it has the flavor of the Atlantic. Delightful!!
Mix this together and start adding your flour, one cup at a time. Mix in each cup with a spoon to start. When you get to cup #4 you’ll be able to start using your hands. Add another 1/2 cup of flour if the dough is still too sticky to shape it into a ball.
Coat your other big bowl with olive oil and put your dough ball into this. Cover the top with a tea towel and put it in a warm spot to rise for about an hour.
You’ll know it’s rising because the whole house will start to smell yeasty. It’s a wonderful, homey smell, like bread already baking.
After an hour, your dough ball should have doubled in size. Take the tea towel off and lay it aside. You’ll be using it again in a minute. Sprinkle some flour over the top and then knead the dough to release the air bubbles. Once I get the dough to a point I can handle it without it being sticky, I like to spread some flour on the counter top for the next part and place my dough on it.
Have you ever made anything with play dough? It’s just like that. You can use a picture of what you want to sculpt if that makes it easier, or you can just make one just like this one, a grape cluster.
Use your pastry knife or your butter knife to cut small pieces of dough from the dough ball and roll them into shapes of grapes. Build your sculpture on the parchment lined cookie sheet (in the pictures you’ll notice I used aluminum foil. That’s because this loaf was going to travel so I wanted to be able to easily wrap it up for the journey). I also make a large stem for the top and some leaves for the stem at the end. Make your grapes all different sizes and stack them to make the cluster appear full and hearty.
Try not to handle your dough too much. I know, that sounds crazy when you’re making a sculpture, but the more you handle the dough, the tougher your bread will be. So know what you’re making and stick to a plan before you get started.
Once you’re finished (You’ll know you’re finished because all of your dough will be used) cover the sculpture with the tea towel for the second rising.
The second rising is different from the first. The first rising you want the dough ball to rise like mad and become huge. The second one you want it to rise just a bit and then get it right into the oven. If it rises too much before baking, you’ll lose your shape. Don’t worry, it’ll rise even more in the oven. So keep an eye on it.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Rinse out the small bowl and scramble the egg in this with a fork.
Give the second rising about 30 minutes. Brush the loaf lightly with the raw egg using your pastry brush. You can get creative at this point and add herbs or extra salt or spices to the top if you want.
Bake the loaf for about 30 minutes, or until it gets a nice brown crusty top. I always watch mine and never use a timer. Make sure the bread is in the middle of the oven so the bottom doesn’t burn.
And there you have it! Artisan bread. Not as hard as you thought, right?
- Yeast Alive! Watch Yeast Live and Breathe (scientificamerican.com)
- Homemade Bread (kopssoren.wordpress.com)
- Sourdough bread (troygill.wordpress.com)
- No-Knead Bread Recipes (thedessertcourse.wordpress.com)
- Breaking Bread: Basic Breads (shreyagoswami7.wordpress.com)
- Learning new skills in Wiltshire – bread making with Vaughan’s Kitchen Cookery School (visitwiltshire.wordpress.com)
- 52 Weeks of Baking: Bread for Beginners (casaycocina.wordpress.com)