By Mary Ann Ebner
Before the first bite, crisp loaves of multigrain bread or toasted bagels seem to add 10 pounds with little more than a glance. That’s the predictable result around my waistline more than ever lately. And when it comes to bread, not all of us can resist home-baked varieties, the puffy, pillowy kind or the crusty-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside loaves baked to eat as soon as they cool. Shared at the table in moderation, artisanal fresh bread rewards with a texture and flavor worth a few calories.
The best benefit of baking bread with a leavening agent like a simple rustic yeast bread loaf, excluding, of course, that sweet scent of fresh dough drifting from room to room, is customizing a variation with favorite ingredients. This time of year, it’s convenient to step out to the garden to lace breads with seasonal herbs. If you’re not growing any dill weed or rosemary on the terrace, make a stop at the farmers market and treat yourself to what’s for sale. Along with trusted herbs, the addition of chopped vegetables to a rapid-rise bread recipe transforms the loaf into a hearty meal.
One of my early bread-baking attempts suffered a yeast fatality when I used water that exceeded the temperature range on the package directions. An instant-read thermometer could have saved the yeast from the scorching liquid, but the water was just too warm to provide the yeast with the proper environment needed to generate bubbling action, and I vaporized it. The yeast couldn’t feed on the sugars in the dough and the anticipated chemical reaction failed.
The guidelines for this yeast bread recipe are loose, but the temperature of the water used to mix with the yeast should be optimal. Baking tips on the yeast packaging explicitly note the suggested temperature (120 degrees) and, whether using active yeast or the more rapidly rising instant active yeast, temperature matters. Once temperature is under control, keep an eye on time. After yeast has been mixed into the properly warmed water, slowly add the dry ingredients.
Be mindful of rising time as the dough fills out, but beyond that, basic yeast breads are low maintenance and easily adapted to suit many preferences. According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the first yeast breads were leavened with wild yeast from the air. Bread baking has evolved along with civilization, and with just a few ingredients, hundreds of variations of yeast breads can be created with varied textures, new flavors, less fat and more fiber.
Though it’s relatively sweet, this yeast bread sits on the fringe of the savory bread group, distanced from dessert breads and buns. With the addition of herbs, the bread becomes a garden trove. Sample something new at the market and ask to rub, sniff and taste an herb to determine a sweet or bitter essence. Chew a leaf and, if it tastes good, pick up a bunch. A basil (Ocimum basilicum) that is sweet-tasting imparts a delicate flavor to this rustic bread. An amount too small may not be strong enough to suit you, but too much may overpower the honey that adds sweetness and fragrance to the dough.
Experiment with a hint or fold in a generous amount prepared in a chiffonade (loosely translated from French for “made of rags”) or essentially thin little ribbons. To prepare the ribbons, stack the leaves, gently roll them up, hold the rolled leaves firmly and slice them thinly with a sharp chef’s knife.
Create a version of an antipasto loaf with olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms or roasted red peppers. I recently used sundried tomatoes in olive oil to anoint my basic dough, and the result was a newly composed creation that was visibly striking and sure to be repeated. I often use white flour to prepare rustic loaves, but for a long time I needed a substitute for a family member’s supersensitive dietary needs. Rice flour produced a soft and airy alternative, and gluten-free ingredients turned out chewy and hearty bread.
Mix it up and create something to share with those closest to you. I love preparing this bread on a lazy weekend and recently baked a couple of loaves that served as the foundation of a casual lunch of bread, cheese and fruit for six people. The bread tastes best the day it’s made, but leftover slices are perfect the next morning when warmed and dabbed with butter, dipped in olive oil or layered with crunchy cucumber medallions.
Makes 2 loaves
½ ounce (2 packs) instant active yeast
2 cups water (warmed to 120 degrees)
½ cup honey
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 cups sifted flour
¼ cup basil, sliced into thin ribbons
1 cup sundried tomatoes in oil, diced
1 cup artichoke hearts or bottoms, chopped
In large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Whisk in honey. Add salt and flour and mix thoroughly. Knead dough by hand 5 to 10 minutes.
Cover bowl with warmed, dampened cheesecloth or towel. Set aside and let dough rise. Check dough 30 minutes later. Deflate bread by punching down the dough with a fist and knead it again. Fold in basil, tomatoes and artichoke. Cover with cloth and allow dough to rise an additional 30 to 40 minutes.
Divide dough into two pieces. Shape dough into rustic loaves and place on baking sheet or place in lightly greased bread-baking pans.
Bake 25 to 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Cool completely before serving.
Infuse yeast bread with fresh herbs.
Photos by M.A. Ebner