Sunday, May 30, 2010

Homemade Italian Bread . . . with Herb, Garlic, & Olive Oil Crust

I grew up in a household where bread, however abundant, was not typically served as an everyday accompaniment to dinner. Rolls were presented with special meals, but that was about it.

When I got married, though, my husband always liked having bread or rolls with his supper, so I got in the habit of including it on the evening menu. Of course, he doesn't like eating the insipid, tasteless, uniformly-sliced bread that comes from a plastic bag, so I've tried to supply good bread when I can, the kind that has at least a little more substance and flavor than the mass produced stuff. I usually buy a baguette or a nice loaf of Italian that might be on sale, but more and more lately I'm able to make something myself.

Anyway, I lucked out recently when I adapted a really basic recipe for Italian bread and tried it out on a new baking stone. It was alarmingly delicious, and fantastically golden. An unexpected home run, you might say. I think it's definitely worth sharing, so here it is!

About this recipe . . .

This formula assumes that you have a baking stone and a mixer with a dough hook, but if you don't, feel free to give this a whirl just using your hands for the mixing and kneading, and by using a baking sheet that's been covered with parchment, and the parchment dusted with cornmeal, instead of a baking stone.

Even with no baking stone, it's certainly worth a try, and I'll bet it will turn out fine. (If you do use a baking sheet, though, I'd recommend you put it on the middle rack of your oven; not the bottom rack as you would if you were using a baking stone.)

Italian Bread, with Herb & Olive Oil Crust

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

1 and 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (or, if you can't find instant yeast, use 1 pkg. active dry yeast and proof it first in 1 cup of the warm water) 
3 cups warm water (between 105 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 cups bread flour
4 to 5 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
Cornmeal (about half a cup should be enough, or extra flour can be used if you don't have cornmeal)

To brush on top of the raw and baked loaves:
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried parsley
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely minced

In  a bowl with the 3 cups warm water, dissolve 1 Tbsp. kosher salt. Pour this into a large mixer bowl. 
Add the instant yeast, 2 cups of bread flour, and 3 cups of the AP flour into the bowl. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed for a couple of minutes to combine. 

Stop the mixer, scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula, and switch to the dough hook. On low speed, add in 1 to 2 more cups of AP flour gradually, about 1/2 a cup at a time. Keep mixing until a cohesive dough begins to form, about 4 minutes. (It will be relatively loose and still kind of wet at this point, but it shouldn't be as soft as a thick liquid, if that's any help!)

On a generously floured work surface, dump out the dough. For about 4 minutes, knead the dough firmly but gently by hand. It's okay to incorporate more flour as needed to keep it from sticking to your work surface at this point, but remember that this is meant to be a pretty soft dough. Once the dough is relatively smooth, place it into a large bowl that's been sprayed with vegetable spray, lightly oiled, or greased. Turn the dough over completely in the bowl, just once, so the bottom and top of the dough are both lightly coated. 

Lightly cover the top of the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap that's also been sprayed with vegetable oil, then cover the plastic loosely with a dish towel. Place the covered bowl in a warm place that's free from drafts. Let the dough rise until it's doubled in bulk. This will probably take at least an hour. 

Gently dump the doubled dough out onto a lightly floured board (don't use too much flour at this point if you can help it; just enough to prevent sticking) and knead it for 5 more minutes. 

Divide the dough into 2 equal parts with a bench scraper or a sharp knife and place both pieces, side by side, back into the sprayed bowl (spray again if you think it's needed). Turn the dough, as before, to make sure it's lightly coated. 

Cover the bowl again with sprayed plastic wrap and a dish towel, and let the dough rise again in a warm spot until doubled; this may take up to an hour. 

Gently dump the risen halves out onto a very, very lightly floured work surface and separate them. (The less extra flour you use now the better. Flour that gets incorporated into the dough at this point can leave ugly grayish streaks in the finished loaves.) One at a time, using your hands, shape each dough piece into a typical, Italian bread-style, oblong loaf. Gently lift and place each shaped loaf onto a completely flat wooden cutting board that's been heavily coated with cornmeal; this will function as your baker's peel. (Or, if you do have a baker's peel, use that.) 

The cornmeal is what allows the loaves to slide onto the baking stone. Don't place the loaves too close together! Cover the loaves, on the board/peel, with the sprayed plastic wrap and the dish towel. Let them rise one last time in a warm place, until almost doubled (about 30 minutes).

About 30 minutes before you'll be baking, put your baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and set the oven to 500 degrees to preheat (yes, I said 500; when the loaves have risen and you're finally ready to place them in the oven, you'll immediately turn it down to 375 degrees.)

In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil, dried herbs, minced garlic, and salt. Have a pastry brush ready.  

Once the loaves have risen, carefully score (aka slash) the tops with the edge of a sharp razor blade or a baker's lame (the lame is that little contraption pictured below, with the green handle; it's pronounced like the word "Tom"). 

This helps prevent the loaves from bursting haphazardly in the oven. Try not to score too deeply or you may deflate the loaves. Brush the loaves with the herb oil, but only use half of it because you'll need to brush them again a few minutes after they're baked. 


A couple of minutes before you're ready to slide the loaves onto the baking stone, take a spritz bottle of warm water and quickly open the oven door. Squirt the mist into the oven about six times; do not aim at the baking stone. Quickly shut the door. 

When you are actually ready to put the loaves onto the stone, open the door again, swiftly slide the loaves onto the stone with a quick jerk of the board/peel, and again squirt the warm water mist into the oven, above the loaves, about six times. Quickly shut the door, and immediately turn the temperature down to 375 degrees. Don't open the oven again for at least 15 minutes. 

The loaves are done when they are golden brown all over, and their internal temperature is about 200 to 210 degrees. Mine baked about 35 minutes, and I tested the interior with a stem thermometer that I poked into the side. 

After the loaves are done, place them on a cooling rack, and after a few minutes brush them again with the herb olive oil mixture. 

This coating will be absorbed into the warm crust quickly, and it really helps make the bread what it is. But if you'd prefer to skip this second coating, go ahead. In any case, enjoy!

Recipe full disclosure! I adapted this recipe from one that came with my Old Stone Oven Kitchen Supply brand baking stone. I changed the recipe by using part bread flour instead of all All Purpose flour, by using instant yeast vs. active dry yeast, by using kosher vs. regular salt, and by adding the olive oil and herbs component. I also completely rewrote the directions, adding in a lot of my own advice. 

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