During the weekend following Thanksgiving I received no less than ten emails from readers and friends containing questions about how to bake bread. It’s not much of a stretch to see why, since lazing around the house (obviously, how I spent the long weekend) is very conducive to bread baking, and bread dough provides lots of time for lazing, so the yeast has time to bring the proper rise.
I was happy to see that many of the emails were from first-time bread bakers, but quickly discovered that with bread, it’s hard to answer general baking questions, such as, “Dear Lauren, How does one go about making bread?” in a succinct email. I’d start out discussing gluten development, find myself going off on a tangent about the science involved , only to realize that (four paragraphs later), I still hadn’t touched upon the subject of yeasts and leaveners. I’m pretty sure that I ended up causing confusion instead of clarity.
The incident, and these questions, made me think back to how I became interested in bread baking in the first place, years ago, when I was looking to step up my homemade pizza game. My preoccupation with chewy dough and crispy crusts led me to want to learn more, and so, I expanded my repertoire: a homemade challah, some dinner rolls, and sandwich bread right from my own oven.
Like most things that involve science, the best way to learn is by schooling yourself. Start with this article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Baking Co. From there, check out some great books on the subject, for example, this one by Peter Reinhart , or this one by Jeff Hertzberg. Then go find recipes that look interesting to you in magazines, books and websites (I love the King Arthur Flour site when I need recipes).
The best way to get better at baking bread is to practice and experiment to see what works best for you. Today I felt like baking something a little different, so I dug into my stacks of Gourmet as a source of inspiration and stumbled across this straightforward recipe for fougasse, a traditional French bread. I thought that the combination of orange and anise sounded wonderful and different, so away I went, applying all the technique I’ve garnered over the years, and the results were as delicious as they are stunning.
Adapted from Gourmet, December, 2006
I adapted this recipe to use bread flour instead of all-purpose because I wanted a more chewy crumb for my bread. The original called for orange flower water, an ingredient that falls into my category of “strange and/or hard to find”, and decided that I wanted a wetter dough with more straight up orange sweetness, so I added the juice of the orange instead. I baked this on a preheated pizza stone in a very hot oven, with a pan of water on the bottom of the oven to keep it moist (this is a theory I’m testing, it’s supposed to help home bakers get a great crust). I sprayed the bread liberally with water immediately after putting it in the oven for the same reason. Some bakers believe that this works, others will swear that it’s bunk. I’m still deciding, but at the very least, I think it improves the look of the crust.
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup warm water (105–115°F)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (from a 1/4-oz package)
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon anise seeds, lightly crushed
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
1/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for brushing
3 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour, plus additional for kneading
1 1/2 teaspoons flaky or coarse sea salt
Special equipment: a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, a spray bottle filled with water
Stir together sugar and warm water in bowl of mixer. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If yeast doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
Whisk flour into yeast mixture until combined well. Let starter rise, loosely covered with plastic wrap, 30 minutes.
Add sugar, salt, crushed anise seeds, water, orange juice, zest, 1/3 cup oil, and 11/4 cups flour to starter and beat at medium speed until smooth. Mix in remaining 2 cups flour, 1/2 cup at a time, at low speed until a soft dough forms.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, sprinkling surface lightly with flour if dough is very sticky, until smooth and elastic (dough will remain slightly sticky), 8 to 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl, turning dough to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down dough (do not knead), then halve. Pat out each half into an oval (about 12 inches long and 1/4 inch thick), then transfer to 2 lightly oiled large baking sheets.
Using a very sharp knife or a pastry scraper, make a cut down center of each oval “leaf,” cutting all the way through to baking sheet and leaving a 1-inch border on each end of cut. Make 3 shorter diagonal cuts on each side of original cut, leaving a 1-inch border on each end of cuts, to create the look of leaf veins (do not connect cuts). Gently pull apart cuts about 1 1/2 inches with your fingers. Let dough stand, uncovered, until slightly puffed, about 30 minutes.
Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 450°F. If you have a pizza stone, place inside the oven and allow it to preheat too.
Brush loaves with remaining tablespoon oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake, either on the pizza stone or on the back of baking sheets, switching position of baking sheets halfway through baking. As soon as the loaves are in the oven, spray liberally with water from the spray bottle. Bake until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on bottom, 35 to 40 minutes total. Transfer loaves to a rack and cool to warm or room temperature.
Fougasses are best eaten the day they’re made.