It’s easier than you think, no matter how you slice it.

We all seem to have that single guilty pleasure when it comes to a particular food. You know . . . that food you can’t imagine living without. The one, when it’s in front of you, that speaks your language and you know exactly how it’s going to end.

For some, it may be the sensation of biting into a chocolate bar. For others, it may be something salty — that crunchy potato chip — or fried anything.

For me, my downfall is bread. Be it a warm and crusty boule slathered with butter, a toasted farmhouse white with a spread of jam or a baguette with stacks of roast beef.

I. Love. Bread.

Take me to a steakhouse and forget the prime rib; instead place a basket of those whole-wheat mini loaves in front of me and I’m in heaven. Touched with molasses, the warmth not only melts the butter, but melts my heart. Parmesan garlic knots are another mouth-watering treasure. And don’t even get me started on cinnamon buns, oozing brown sugar and glazed to perfection.

The only thing better than being served the “staple of life” is baking it yourself, with the satisfaction of the mixing, the magic of rising and, ahh, the smell that permeates the house.

Even if you think you can’t bake — and even if you think you don’t have the time — bread making is not as scary or as time consuming as it seems.

Many of my breads derive from a basic white “master” recipe, so the most significant thing you “knead” to know is the purpose for each ingredient, which then allows you to create variations.

Yeast: There are basically two types: dry and instant, both of which make the dough rise, giving bread its light texture and flavor.

Flour: Rich in gluten, it gives the dough its elasticity and strength.

Liquid: It activates the yeast and blends flour into dough.

Fat: It adds texture and moistness to keep the bread fresher longer.

Salt: This slows the rising time to allow flavor to develop.

Sweetener: It adds flavor and color to crust.

Egg: This is a leavening agent, making a higher rise.

The process:

Step 1: Measuring. This aspect is crucial, especially with the flour. The most common mistake is scooping flour with a measuring cup, which packs it too tightly. The result: too much flour and a dry bread. Instead, fluff flour in its container, then carefully spoon it into the measuring cup and use a knife to level. Weighing flour is the most accurate method of measurement, used by professional bakers: 1 cup of most bread flours equals 4.5 ounces; for whole wheat flour, 4.25.

Step 2: Mixing. This step incorporates the ingredients and gives structure. This can be done by hand (kneading) or a stand-up mixer with a hook at a low speed.

Step 3: Fermenting/rising. The process converts the sugars into carbon dioxide, alcohol and organic acids. This will influence the bread’s size, taste and texture.

Step 4: Shaping. Once the dough has risen, this step determines what the final product will look like.

Step 5: Final fermenting. The final rise will give it the perfect texture.

Step 6: Baking. Enriched breads, such as white or sweet, are typically baked around 350 to 375 degrees; breads without fat at 425 to 450.

Step 7: Cooling. The toughest of all steps — because it’s very tempting to cut and eat it immediately. Excess moisture needs time to escape or it will be a doughy mess.

Temperature is another key to success, both in mixing and rising. When mixing, the liquid should be no hotter than 120 degrees or it will begin to destroy the yeast. Optimal rising is done in a room between 70 and 80 degrees.

Once you have mastered a basic white recipe (included), you should feel free to experiment making bread “your way,” because many breads are just variations. For example, for a richer bread I prefer milk over water, butter over oil. I like a more yeasty flavor, so I add an extra 1/2 teaspoon. For cinnamon buns, I add a few extra tablespoons of sugar and a touch of vanilla. Adding garlic, oregano and basil to a basic white recipe makes a great pizza crust.

A few other variations:

* For French bread, use half the sugar, oil over butter and no egg. Then shape it, cut a few slits on top and bake it at the higher temp on a cookie sheet or stone.

* For a boule or baguettes use only flour, water, salt and yeast; but you’ll need a preheated stone and steam to give it that undeniable crust. For the steam, place a pan of boiling water on the bottom rack while baking.

* For whole wheat bread, you can use up to 50 percent whole wheat flour depending on preference. Replace sugar with molasses for depth of flavor.

As for the time needed to make your own, a process called delayed fermentation is one way to fit bread making into your schedule. Using cool water will delay the bread’s rising, while refrigeration after kneading practically stops the rising. So, for instance, you could whip up the bread dough at night after work, slow rise it overnight and bake it in the morning. Experimenting will give you a feel for the process.

There are also many no-knead breads. Actually, one of my all-time favorite no-knead breads is a rustic boule with its thick, crunchy crust and light, airy center. It’s the perfect accompaniment to pasta.

I use the delay fermenting method for this bread; making it couldn’t be easier. 

Take 4 cups of bread flour and throw it into a very large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon of instant yeast, 1 3/4 teaspoons of salt and 1 3/4 cups cool water and mix with a wooden spoon; it will be wet and sticky. Cover with plastic wrap for 12 to 18 hours at room temp. (If you prefer not to use delayed fermenting, using 100-degree water will rise the dough in about 3 to 4 hours.)

When the dough darkens, smells yeasty and is dotted with bubbles it’s ready for the next step. On well-floured parchment and with well-floured hands, form a ball with the dough while folding over the dough a few times, leaving the folds on the bottom.

Place in a bowl lined with a floured towel, cover and rise for one-and-a-half to two hours at room temp. With 30 minutes remaining, place an empty Dutch oven on the middle rack if your oven and preheat it to 425. When the dough’s rising time is up, carefully remove the Dutch oven and flip the dough into it (folds up), cover the pot and return it to the oven. After 35 minutes, remove cover and cook another 5 to 10 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Because you’re baking the bread inside the Dutch oven, moisture is trapped and you don’t need a pan of water to produce steam.

Homemade bread will not have the shelf life of store-bought, but it’s a good trade for less preservatives and taste. And there is always something you can do with not-so-fresh bread — including amazing croutons, delicious bread pudding, even bread crumbs.

But trust me, that’s rarely a problem in my kitchen.

Farmhouse white bread (master dough)

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons instant yeast

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons melted butter

1/3 cup sugar

1 egg

1 cup warm (100-110 degree) water

3 1/4 cups bread flour

Instructions:

Pour water into your stand mixer bowl. Add yeast and mix with paddle attachment to dissolve. Add the salt, butter, sugar, egg and half of the flour. Continue to mix for 5 minutes on low.

Add the remaining flour and swap to the dough hook for 10 minutes on low. (May need to add 1 tablespoon water if too stiff.)

Put dough into a greased bowl, turning so surface is greased. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Poke dough down and turn onto a floured surface. Knead or slap to remove air bubbles.

Shape loaf and put into a greased bread pan. Turn dough to coat surface. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Let rest in pan for 10 minutes before turning out to cool completely on rack.

For dinner rolls, follow directions except: Before second rise, divide dough into 12-15 equal pieces, shape into balls and place in a 12-by-9-inch pan. Bake about 25-30 minutes. (May also use three mini-loaf pans.)

Cinnamon buns

Ingredients:

Follow the master dough recipe up to the shaping stage.

Filling:

3/4 stick of butter, softened

1 cup firmly-packed brown sugar

4 tablespoons ground cinnamon

3/4 cup raisins or nuts (optional)

Instructions:

On a floured mat, roll dough to approximately 14 inches by 14 inches.

Spread butter over dough, sprinkle with cinnamon, brown sugar and raisins/nuts.

Roll into a log (not too tight) and pinch seam.

Carefully cut 9 equal slices and place in a prepared 9-by-9-inch pan.

Let rise about an hour and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Let set in pan for 15 minutes then turn onto a large plate. When cool, drizzle with a glaze made of 3/4 cup confectionery sugar, a drop of vanilla and water to desired consistency.

Parmesan garlic knots

Ingredients:

Follow the master dough recipe up to the shaping stage.

Coating:

1/4 cup butter

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Instructions:

Roll out dough and cut into (desired-sized) strips. Tie strips into a loose knot, place on cookie sheet cover and rise.

Bake about 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees.

While baking, melt butter in a sauce pan and add coating ingredients. Brush onto hot rolls and serve immediately.

Steakhouse molasses bread

Ingredients:

1 1/3 cup strong coffee at 100-110 degrees

1/2 stick melted butter

1/4 cup molasses

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 cups bread flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

Instructions:

Follow master bread instructions.


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