It doesn’t take beluga-caviar quiche filled with watercress from the Fountain of Youth to impress your friends. Last weekend, I discovered that one of life’s oldest recipes can really turn them on.
We’re talking bread.
People are simply amazed when you take the time to actually cook a loaf of bread versus buying the bomb-proof stuff from the store. When it got super cold on Sunday, I decided the cure-all would be soup, a loaf and some friend-time. And, because there was nothing better to do than watch football and cook on a snowy, still-ski-less day in Aspen, it would all be made from scratch.
Zucchini bread, people expect. Cornbread muffins are typical. Even rolls are par for the course, but if you can make a loaf — arguably the easiest out of all baked goods —then people dig it.
Soups just begged to be served with something to slop them up. No one likes a slurper, but if you can clean a bowl with a hearty chunk of edible sponge, then it’s a compliment to the chef.
With a 13-bean veggie soup on the stove, I turned to bread variations and found that the possibilities are really endless. After the essentials — flour, water and yeast — you can add any sort of special treats to match the loaf to whatever else is being served. Think olives, cheese, raisins and the like.
Bread is one of the oldest food staples that exists, and unsurprisingly almost every culture eats some form of it, from tortillas to naan. Because it’s been at the center of cultural exchanges for thousands of years, maybe that’s why people gravitate toward fresh loaves today — it’s in our DNA.
Yeast breads, which are the ones that rise, require forethought but not lots of time. Prep the bread in the morning and pop it in the fridge for the day to bake that night with dinner, or if you have time, make the dough and let it sit at room temp for two to three hours.
To make the dough, combine 1 cup of water, 3 1/2 cups of flour (either all white, whole wheat or a combination of the two, like I did this past weekend), 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast. If you have a food processor, this will be exponentially easier. (Use the dough blade). If not, stir the ingredients and once they become too stiff to mix, separate into smaller chunks and knead these by hand, which basically means fold and pound the dough repeatedly. If it’s too dry, add water. If too sticky, add flour.
During the kneading process, add a signature twist. A few ideas include:
- Cheddar cheese and parsley
- Roasted garlic and parmesan cheese
- Gorgonzola and caramelized onions
- Chopped herbs, like cilantro, dill or chives
- Dried fruit and cinnamon
- Minced chiles, like jalapeño
Once the dough is ready, let it rise at room temp for up to three hours, or in the fridge if longer.
Separate the dough into smaller loaves, or bake a big one. The loaves can be rolled thin, and even braided for a super-impressive presentation. Don’t forget to score the top once it’s ready to go. Put it in the oven (on baking sheet or stone) at 375 degrees and bake until the edges are golden.
This is about the time when the smell of fresh bread lingers in the air, and friends, family, and even neighbors are getting hungry. Pull from the oven, cheers and say “Tonight, we break bread!”