Saturday, December 10, 2011

Easy, Fresh Italian Bread

A warm welcome to new subscriber Margot!

As part of last week’s recipe for a delicious spaghetti and homemade meatballs dinner with an easy-to-prepare no-cook tomato sauce, I promised to come back with directions for the fresh-baked Italian bread I served on the side. Today I keep that promise.

What’s that you say? Baking bread is difficult? Not at all! Although we’ll be making ours by hand, remember that some people make bread by putting the ingredients in a bread machine, walking away, and coming back later when the bread is finished, with the machine having done all the work; how much thinking could be involved? This is especially true of Italian bread, which is usually kept simple because one of its main purposes is mopping that delicious sauce from the entrée plate, and you wouldn’t want embellish it with herbs or other savory flavors that might conflict with your sauce. (That said, it’s also mighty good gently dipped in a small dish of either plain or herbed extra virgin olive oil. I like a dash of vinegar too, but that’s just me.)

If you’re concerned that bread takes hours to make, I have more good news. While it’s true that several hours will pass between the time you start to the time you have fresh, warm bread to serve, for almost all of it the dough is doing the work while you’re off living your life. In the culinary world, this is known as “inactive time.”

Among the few simple ingredients this recipe uses is bread flour. That’s not the same thing as all-purpose flour, but it’s easy to find right next to it in the baking aisle at any supermarket. For a quick description of what the difference is, here’s a link to a recipe for Savory Crust Pizza posted here previously.

This introduction to bread-making would be incomplete without this bit of wisdom I read in a wonderful book call, “How I Learned to Cook” by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan. It's a compilation of early experiences related by a collection of well-known chefs. One of the chapters was from Nancy Silverton, co-founder (and bread expert) of a number of high-level restaurants in California. What she said, which I simply loved, included this:

"I realized I couldn't think about bread the way I thought about pastry or pasta or any other typical culinary undertaking. Bread is alive. Minor inconsistencies are a fact of life, not a mark of failure. The tiny variation in the loaves from day to day made them unique, not imperfect. And the relationship of a baker to her bread is like any other kind of serious relationship you have with anybody in life. It's never perfect. It takes so much work. And every time you think that you've mastered it, the next day you're brought back to reality and it needs some more work."

Let’s bake some fresh bread! This recipe makes four 4 loaves.

Dissolve 1 package (1/4 oz.) dry yeast and ½ teaspoon of sugar in 2 cups of 110 degree F water and let it rest for about five minutes. (The mixture should foam while resting.)

Sift 1-1/2 pounds of bread flour, setting another ¼ pound aside for adding later if needed for texture. (It’s easier to add flour to a dough that’s too moist than it is to add liquid to a dough that’s too dry.)

Add 1 tablespoon of salt and mix well, since direct contact with the salt will kill the yeast in the next step.)

Add water-yeast mixture and mix to form dough.

Knead for 8-10 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, and just a bit sticky. (You can do this by hand, but it’s easier with a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.)

Place dough in a well oiled bowl and let stand until about double in size. (Usually 1-2 hours.) The stove top or the top of the refrigerator are good places for this.

After the dough has doubled in size, pressing down with hands to deflate it, then turn it out onto your counter and divide it into four portions.

Press each portion into an oval.

Fold the long sides toward the center. Press out again and repeat.

Using palms, roll each into a cylinder 12 inches long. (Start with palms in the middle and work toward the ends to make the cylinders longer. Don’t pull the dough, which will toughen the gluten in the flour.)

Place each cylinder on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal. Cover loosely with oiled wrap and “bench-proof” until doubled, about 45 minutes – 1 hour. While the loaves are proofing, pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees.

When the loaves have finished proofing, make three lengthwise cuts on top of each loaf. Place each loaf in oven and bake until browned, about 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature of the oven to 400, and continue baking for another 20-25 minutes until well-colored. Let the loaves cool a bit on racks.

Happy bread-making!

See you next week with another delicious, kitchen-tested recipe made from easy-to-find ingredients. Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)


  1. I love Italian bread!! I am so gonna have to try this!!!I will print this out and add it to my 3 ring recipe binder.

  2. Thanks, Tawnya! There is nothing quite like fresh-baked bread, and this one is pretty easy. Hope you like it!

  3. Do u start with a 425 degree oven or 450 before reducing temperature? Thanks

  4. Thanks, Coffeedrin. You're absolutely right; I inadvertently left the original oven temperature out of the recipe. I've now corrected it to show that the oven should be preheated to 500 degrees during the proofing process, and the temperature lowered after the first 10 minutes of the bake. Good eye!