Freshly baked bread drives the senses wild like nothing else on Earth. Its aroma tickles the nose and awakens the fondest memories. Eyes widen at the steam coming off of its beautiful brown top. Taste buds tingle with excitement. Yes, eating freshly baked bread is an experience everyone should enjoy regularly. It isn’t hard to do, either. All you need are a few simple ingredients, an easy-to-follow recipe, and a couple of hours to make the magic happen. Then you, too, can stimulate your senses the way only fresh bread can.
Making white bread starts with heating 1 1/2 cups of water to 115 - 120 Fahrenheit. Invest in a cooking thermometer for best results - they are cheap, and you can find one at the local supermarket. Mix in two teaspoons of sugar or honey until it’s dissolved. Next, add in one packet of active dry yeast or, if you are using yeast from a jar, 2 1/4 teaspoons. Stir until everything is mixed together, then pour into a bowl. Let it sit for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have. The longer you let it sit, the airier and lighter your bread will be, but one hour is plenty.
Use a whisk to mix two tablespoons of olive oil and one teaspoon of salt into the bowl. After that, start stirring in the flour. You will use four cups of flour, stirring in 1/2 cup at a time. Continue to stir for about 7 - 8 minutes, until a nice, soft, smooth dough forms. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
Pour your dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 8 - 10 minutes. Kneading is working the mixture into a dough, basically like giving the flour mixture a massage. It’s going to become sticky while you are kneading it, so add a little flour at a time, a pinch or two at the most, just to keep it smooth.
For a twist on regular white bread, you may want to add diced cheese or herbs, such as asiago cheese or chopped rosemary. It’s not necessary but gives an added flavor. If so, now is the time to do so.
Spray some non-stick spray or rub some olive oil onto the interior of a large bowl. Take the ball of dough you just kneaded and pull the corners down around it to make a nice, smooth top. Now pick it up and put it into the greased bowl upside down. Pick it up and turn it over, then put it back into the bowl. You have now coated the entire ball of dough with oil.
Tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm, humid, draft-free area for about an hour, or until it doubles in size. If you live in Florida or similar places, you can just keep it on your counter. However, if you live in an area where it’s colder or dry, you can heat your oven with a bowl of water in it, and then turn off the heat to make the right atmosphere. Just put your bowl in there to rise.
After the dough has doubled in size, you need to see if it’s ready for the next step. To do so, push your finger into it about 1/2 inch and then take it out. If the indentation stays, your dough is ready. If not, replace the cover and continue to let it sit for about another ten minutes, then try again. Your indentation should stay, and you will know you are ready to move on.
Pour your proofed dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a football. Next, pull the sides down and tuck them underneath to form a nice, smooth top. Spray some non-stick spray or rub some olive oil onto the interior of a cookie sheet, put the dough onto it and cover it with plastic wrap. Let it sit for about 45 minutes. The dough will rise again, but won’t quite double this time.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Take the plastic wrap off of the cookie sheet. Use a serrated knife to cut one slit down the middle of the top of the dough, about 1/2 inch deep. This allows the dough to keep its shape while baking. Next, dust the top of the loaf with flour and, just before it goes into the oven, mist the top with water to give it a nice, firm crust.
Put the cookie sheet into the oven for ten minutes, then turn down the temperature to 400. Bake for another 20 - 25 minutes, then check to see if it’s done. Do so by tapping on the top of the loaf with a butter knife. The bread has baked all the way through and is done if it sounds hollow when you tap it. If not, keep it in the oven for another 5 - 10 minutes and try again. When you hear the hollow sound, take out the bread and put it onto a cooling rack.
The hardest part about baking bread is this last step. You can see the steam coming off the loaf, that amazing smell is now everywhere, your mouth is watering, and you can’t stand to wait another second. Unfortunately, though, you must. Cooling the bread for at least ten minutes is important because it is still cooking on the inside, even though it’s out of the oven. Letting it cool helps keep the bread from getting crumby, and ensures it is baked to perfection. Once it is cooled, you are ready to sit back, slice a piece of homemade bread, and drive your senses wild.