Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Soft sandwich bread

Fresh baked bread, cooling on the rack
I do post a lot of bread recipes on here, but I do so because I'm always trying new ones. There's something visceral about kneading bread, and yet there are definitely many times when I just can't take the time to enjoy the rhythm and pattern of it. The world calls, and chores must be done, and I can't always give myself over to 25 minutes of joyous kneading. Hence, this bread.

Prepared to bake
I found this recipe on Pinterest, and it was labeled as a French bread version. The first time I made it, I dutifully made long, stretched out loaves that looked rather like footballs or torpedoes. When the bread came out of the oven, it looked spectacular, but when I sliced it, the crispiness I expect of a French loaf just wasn't there. However, the bread was really good! The second try I made, I specifically made rustic loaves that were olive shaped, thinking they would be better for slicing, and that was indeed true. However, it still wasn't French bread, and it wasn't right for sandwiches. Then I found my perfect method, and made the recipe my own, and that's what you get to share in today!

Mixing with the paddle
The recipe is fairly simple, and you can find it at the end of this article. I used my MixMaster to create this bread because I was in a rush doing other things, but it can be done by hand as well, and almost as easily.

Start by mixing together 2.5 cups of warm water (run the water over the inside of your wrist until it's just a tad warmer than your skin) with 2 tablespoons of yeast and 2 tablespoons of sugar with 2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Let it stand until it begins to bubble, about 3-5 minutes.

Ready to switch to the dough hook
To the above, add in a tablespoon of sea salt and 1/3 cup of olive oil (or the oil of your choice - it works equally well with olive oil, vegetable oil, and EVOO) and stir well. Slowly add in flour a half cup at a time, until you end up with a well mixed batter. If you are doing it by hand, continue to mix with fork or spoon until it's quite thick, then switch to kneading on the counter. If using a MixMaster, after about 5 cups of flour you'll want to switch from the paddle (pictured above) to the dough hook. Continue adding the flour until the dough is soft, but firm enough to mold into loaves. It will be somewhat sticky to the touch.

A sticky mess...
I found that I needed to finish off the kneading by hand, no matter how much I used the machine. It only required a minute or so, but that final touch just turns out nicer when you get your hands on the dough. I turn it out when it's pulling away from the sides of the mixing bowl, but while it's still quite sticky. As you can see, it's definitely not ready to sit as a single batch of dough (picture to right). Flour your hands well before kneading, and work the dough until it's just a bit tacky on the outside, yet smooth and soft.

Ready to rise
This is the flexible part of the recipe, something I really appreciated because I was so busy! Form the dough into a nice ball by tucking your hands underneath and turning it. Let it sit on the counter a moment while you butter, oil or spray a large bowl (ceramic or metal work better than plastic for this). Turn the ball into the bowl, allowing the top of it to get oiled, then flip it so the "gathered" section is under it. If the dough isn't oily, you can put a spritz of EVOO or no-stick spray on the top. Don't overdo it, though.

The second rise
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp floured cloth, and set it in a warm, draft-free place to rise. I like to put my rising dough into the oven, with the light on. It's just warm enough in there and the door keeps it free of breezes. Check back every 30 minutes, and punch the dough down anytime it doubles in size. This is a very vigorous dough, and it will puff up a lot, several times. You should allow the dough to rise and be punched down at least three times, but up to five or six is fine. I found that it took about 35 minutes to rise enough to be punched down. Always cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a cloth each time you put it back to rise.

Oiling the loaf pans
There are several ways to complete this bread recipe. If you want a round, rustic style loaf, you can simply place the bread onto a baking stone or in a cast iron pot and bake it that way. If you want a long loaf, roll it out using your hands. Do not use a rolling pin for this recipe at all. I decided I wanted sandwich bread, and so I pulled out my loaf pans. Grease the pans up well and have them ready on the counter before the last rise is complete.

Divided into loaves for rising
When the last rise is done, turn the dough out onto a slightly greased counter. You should work it very gently but not knead it outright. Using a sharp knife or dough cutter, separate your dough into three equal pieces. Roll these pieces into rough loaf shapes, but don't worry too much about the details. Press the dough into the corners of the loaf pans if you're using them, but again, be very gentle. Once they're in the pans or sitting on the counter, cover them and let them rise a final time.

In the oven to bake
If you are making rustic rounds or torpedoes, when they are the right size, it's time to bake them. If you are making sandwich loaves, you need to watch them a bit more closely because if left too long, this dough will rise up out of the pans entirely and take over your kitchen. The good news is that if this happens, just punch it down, roll it back into a loaf shape, and pop it back in the pan. Let it rise one last time and watch it better! If you look at my picture to the left, you'll see the dough is just over the edges of the pan, but not pouring over. Whatever method you use, slash your loaves three times with a very sharp knife, and slide into a pre-heated 375F oven.

After 30 minutes
After 30 minutes, keep a close eye on your loaves. Mine took 35 minutes to bake in the pans, but the rustic torpedoes I made last time were ready in 30 minutes even. They're ready when the tops begin to brown and the bottom makes a hollow sound when you tap it. If it isn't quite ready, just pop it back in the oven for another few minutes.

Finished loaves cooling
If you want to have bread that slices well for sandwiches, take a stick of butter and slide it over the top of your hot loaves. Not only does it make your bread taste irresistibly good, it also makes the top a little less crunchy, more able to slice easily. If you want a crunchier crust, you can actually whisk an egg up with a tablespoon of water, and paint the top of your loaves just before putting them in to bake.  They will be slightly darker and the crust will be chewier.

I made these loaves with Better for Bread flour, because it's what I had on hand at the time. It could be done with any flour, although you want something that has a decent gluten content to help with the rise. If you find the bread a little fluffy, decrease the yeast by a half teaspoon and see how it works for you. If it isn't sweet enough, add an extra tablespoon of sugar at the start of the recipe. Alternatively, skip the sugar and add either honey, or a mix of honey and molasses for a more dense bread.

This bread works great for sandwiches!
As you can see in the picture, this bread has a nice crumb, and slices fairly well. This was taken while the bread was still hot enough that I needed a hot pad to keep my hands from burning. Once it's completely cool, it slices like a dream. The recipe could easily be adapted to contain garlic, onion flakes, or any powdered flavoring such as tomato or spinach powder. Simply add those items along with the flour, before the dough forms.

Soft Sandwich Bread (makes 3 loaves)
  • 2.5 cups warm water
  • 2 tbsp dry active yeast
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 6-7 cups flour
Add together water, yeast, sugar and vinegar, and mix together gently. Let sit until bubbly (about 3-5 minutes). Add the salt and oil, and begin adding the flour one cup at a time. The dough should be soft, but firm enough to mold into loaves.

Knead for 2-5 minutes, and then put in the oven with a small pot of boiling water (this keeps the dough moist). Watch the dough and punch it down every time it gets to the top of the mixing bowl. You can do this many times, but at least 2-5 times. Longer is fine.

Put the dough on a greased counter top and divide into three sections (for three small loves, or two for two larger loaves). Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal on the bottom of the sheet. Roll the dough balls into French bread shapes (slightly torpedo or long and skinny). Slash the tops of the bread diagonally 3-5 times and coat with a beaten egg.

Let it rise 30 minutes (or until doubled) on the counter, or put into the oven at 170F and wait until they're the size you want to cook them at. Once they're the right size, set the stove to 375F (without opening it if the loaves are inside) and let them bake until done. If going from counter to oven, bake about 30 minutes; loaves risen in the oven may bake quicker.

Enjoy!

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All photographs (c) Rev. M. Allyson Szabo 2013. All rights reserved.