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Baking Bread

Irma R., a novice home cook, turns to F&W's Tina Ujlaki with her kitchen questions. This month, the topic is bread: how to make a classic Italian loaf, and why you should stay awake on the job.

Problem

Dear Tina,

I'm not a baker, but ever since my trip to Italy, I've been lusting after a simple Italian loaf that I could make at home. Any ideas? —Irma

Answer

Dear Irma,

I asked one of my bread heroes—Jim Lahey, of New York City's Sullivan Street Bakery—what he would advise. He gave me a recipe for a great, crusty plain loaf that's perfect for toasting for breakfast, for dipping in olive oil, for making croutons or for serving with dinner. Jim suggests baking the bread in an enameled cast-iron casserole, but it can also be baked in the oven on a preheated stone. You can use the same dough to make rolls and delicious rosemary focaccia, too. Jim's recipe calls for a standing mixer, but it's also fine to make the dough by hand. —Tina

Problem

Dear Tina,

I made the dough, but I fell asleep while it was rising. By the time I woke up, it had risen above the rim of the bowl and had stuck to the plastic. The baked bread had a very tough crust and an irregular texture within. Was that because I let it rise too long? —Irma

Answer

Dear Irma,

I'm afraid it was. Both the texture of your loaf and its tough exterior could be traced to the problem of overproofing—letting the dough rise too much. Jim won't agree, but I've found that you can refrigerate the dough after the first rise in a resealable plastic bag for a day or so, then shape it into loaves, rolls or focaccia and let it proof at room temperature until just doubled before baking. By the way, when you transfer the dough to the oiled bowl in Step 2, be sure to turn the dough to coat it on all sides with olive oil; that way it won't stick to the plastic. —Tina

Published December 2002
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