If you are one of those people who avoids complicated bread recipes and hates to knead dough, this recipe is for you. You stir four ingredients into water, let the dough rise, roll it out and bake yourself an absolutely delicious bread that reminds me of loaves we bought and devoured when a friend and I spent a week in Paris, France, many years ago. It is so simple to make and so good to eat that this bread should be in every cook’s repertoire.
I found the recipe by chance while browsing through The James Beard Cookbook which I found at a thrift shop several years ago. The book appeared in 1959, and our paperback copy was printed in 1964 when it sold for seventy-five cents. It is in perfect condition and probably cost me a quarter. This recipe alone makes it worth twenty times as much.
The five-hundred-plus pages of this little book are filled with at least a thousand recipes for everything from angel food cake to sautéed zucchini. The section on meat alone (excluding fish, shellfish and poultry) is one hundred twenty-two pages long. If you want a compact book to guide you through recipes for almost any standard western European cuisine, this little book would be a good choice. It is out of print, so you may have to hunt for a copy, but it’s worth it.
Meanwhile, here is how to make James Beard’s Cuban bread.
2 cups water
1 T sugar
1 T salt
2 tsp. yeast
4 – 6 cups flour
Corn meal to sprinkle on baking pan
Heat two cups of water until it is lukewarm and pour it into a large bowl. Stir in the sugar, salt and yeast and allow the yeast to proof. Add a cup of flour when the yeast starts to bubble and stir thoroughly.
Add more flour a cup at a time until you have a smooth dough. Add the flour in smaller amounts when the dough begins to stiffen. When the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and forms a ball, cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and set the bowl in a warm draft-free place until the dough has doubled in volume.
Start a tea kettle of water heating when the dough has raised nearly enough and sprinkle corn meal generously on a baking sheet.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Deflate the dough and divide it into two equal parts. Turn the parts to coat the surfaces with flour and use a rolling pin to roll each piece into a ten by sixteen-inch rectangle. Roll the dough into loaves about sixteen inches long and place them on the baking sheet.
Slash each loaf with a sharp knife in two or three places, paint the loaves with cold water and put the baking sheet on the center shelf in a cold oven.
Turn on the oven and set it to 400º. When the oven heat has reached two hundred twenty-five degrees, pour a half inch of boiling water in a nine by thirteen-inch baking pan and set the pan of boiling water on the lower shelf in the oven.
Bake for thirty-five minutes. Check for doneness with an instant- read thermometer. The loaves are done when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a loaf reads 195º. If you don’t have a thermometer, tap on the bottom of a loaf. If it sounds hollow the bread is done. If it is not, bake it for another five minutes.
NOTES: Beard does not specify any particular type of flour. I suggest starting with two cups of bread flour and adding enough all-purpose flour to finish making the dough.