Like Italian Feather Bread

We bought our copy of Beard on Bread over forty years ago and it still occupies a position of honor among our cookbooks. Beard’s recipe for “Italian Feather Bread” is one of our favorites. It is easy to make, attractive to serve and delicious to eat, especially within three or four hours after baking. The loaves begin drying out after a couple of days, but then the slices are wonderful for French Toast.

For the first few years I followed Beard’s instructions exactly, and we liked the results. As I learned more about baking I reduced the amount of yeast a little, extended the kneading time a bit, lowered the oven temperature and shortened the baking time. Finally I decided to try shaping the loaves a little differently, slashing them as if I were making French bread and baking them in our French bread pan. Jerri and I agreed that this should be our final version.

We still use Beard’s name for the bread, but our guests think of it as a good French bread. I no longer make French bread, but I do make baguettes, which are a kind of true French bread.

INGREDIENTS:

4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 T granulated sugar
1 cup warm water (100° to 105°)
3/4 cup hot water
1/3 cup butter
2 tsp. salt
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
White of one egg

PROCEDURE:

As usual when making bread, scrub your hands like a surgeon.

Heat a cup of water as if you were warming milk for a baby. A drop on the inside of your wrist should feel warm but not hot. Put the water into a large bowl. Stir the sugar and yeast into the water and allow it to begin proofing. When you see a few bubbles rising to the surface, you know that the yeast is working.

Heat three-fourths of a cup of water in the microwave or over very low heat on the cooktop. Cut the butter into small pieces and melt them in the water. Let the water and butter cool to lukewarm and stir in the salt. Stir a cup of flour into the yeast liquid, then add the lukewarm water, salt and butter and beat until you have a smooth liquid. Add the next three cups of the flour a cup at a time, stirring after each addition to mix the batter thoroughly.

At this point begin adding the flour a half cup at a time until the dough begins to come away from the sides of the bowl. Using a spatula, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a generously floured work surface. Dust your hands with flour, then turn the dough with the spatula or a baker’s scraper while pressing it down with your free hand until the dough is coated with flour and no longer sticks to your hand.

Knead the dough for three or four minutes, dusting the work surface with small amounts of flour if necessary, until you have a tender, smooth elastic dough. Do not knead it too long. Let it rest a few minutes while you prepare a two-loaf French bread pan by greasing it lightly.

Use a baker’s scraper or large knife to divide the dough in half. Roll each half into something resembling a rectangle with lobed edges about eight or nine inches wide and fourteen to fifteen inches long. Form two long loaves by rolling up the dough, pinching the ends as you roll them up. Done right you will have a loaf that is a bit thicker in the middle. Pinch and tuck the ends to make a good seal.

Place the loaves seam side down in the pan, cover them with a damp kitchen towel and allow them to rise until doubled in size in a warm, draft-free place. This can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour or even a little more, depending on how warm it is in your kitchen.

When the loaves have nearly doubled in size, preheat the oven to 400º and beat the egg white with a teaspoon of cold water. When the oven is hot, paint the tops of the loaves with the egg wash and use a razor blade or very sharp knife to make three or four diagonal slashes in the tops of the loaves.

Put the pan on the center shelf in the oven and bake the bread for thirty to forty minutes until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Better, yet, use an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness after thirty minutes. The loaves are done when the interior temperature is about 195º.

Remove the bread from the oven and cool the loaves on a rack for at least twenty minutes before slicing.

NOTES: This recipe is a good one for someone who has never made a loaf of homemade bread. If you are unsure of how to knead dough, you might want to visit Wikihow.com for an excellent tutorial on how to do it, complete with photos and videos.

You can bake this bread on an ordinary baking sheet if you don’t have a French bread pan. Beard’s original instructions call for greasing the sheet and dusting it with cornmeal. The loaves will not be shaped like French bread and you may have to bake them a little longer, but the bread will taste fine in any case.

Quick and Easy Baguettes

More than anything else, seeing a bicyclist with a shopping bag hanging from the handlebars and a three foot long loaf of bread under her arm convinced me that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I was not in Kansas anymore. Or in my case, no longer in Wisconsin.

People do not carry unwrapped loaves of bread under their arms in Wisconsin, certainly not while riding bicycles, but it is still a common sight in Europe. The longest loaves I saw were in Paris, France, but nearly every baker at the market in Münster, Germany, where I was a student, had a bin filled with long skinny loaves that gave me another reason to call bread “the staff of life.”

These long loaves are called baguettes. In French the word means simply baton or wand, so the conductor at a concert uses a baguette de direction to lead the orchestra and the magician waves his baguette magique over the scarf-covered top hat to make the rabbit appear.

You can make your own magic wands with just flour, water, yeast and salt, though I like to add a fifth ingredient, a pinch or two of sugar, to encourage the yeast. When your loaves are done, you can entertain your family and guests by waving a baguette over the table before you cut it into pieces and pass the butter, cheese or herbed olive oil. Once they taste the new bread, they will applaud you as the “kitchen magician.”

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 tsp. sugar
2 1/4 tsp. yeast (1 package)
About 3 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt
Cooking spray
Cornmeal

PROCEDURE:

Heat the water until it feels warm but not hot when you sprinkle a drop or two on the inside of your wrist, just as if you were testing the contents of a baby bottle. Put the water in a mixing bowl, and stir in the sugar and yeast. Let the yeast proof for five to ten minutes until it begins to foam.

Put a cup of bread flour into the liquid and stir it well. Repeat with the second cup of flour, at which point the mixture will be a thick batter. Now add flour a quarter cup at a time, stirring thoroughly between each addition. On average you will need to add a little more than three-quarters of a cup of flour to end up with a soft but firm dough. It is better to have a dough that is slightly too soft, since you will add more flour while kneading.

Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let it stand in a warm, draft-free place for half an hour. The dough will rise noticeably in this time, since you have not added any salt, which retards yeast growth. Scrape the dough from the bowl on to a lightly floured work surface. It will be a little sticky. Use a spatula to turn the dough and flatten it a bit. Sprinkle a half teaspoon of salt on it. Fold the dough, turn it once again and sprinkle on another half teaspoon of salt.

Knead the dough for five to six minutes until it is smooth and elastic, keeping your hands and the work surface lightly floured. Kneading distributes the salt through the dough and of course gives you that nice bread texture. Form the dough into a ball.

Coat the inside of the mixing bowl with cooking spray and roll the ball of dough in the bowl to lightly grease the surface. Cover with the damp towel and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume, usually forty-five minutes to an hour.

Sprinkle a light coating of cornmeal on a baking sheet. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into thirds and form each piece into a rope a little over an inch in diameter and twelve to fourteen inches long with tapered ends. Put the ropes on the prepared baking sheet, coat them lightly with cooking spray and cover them with a damp towel. Let them rise until they have doubled in size, usually about half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 450º.

When the loaves have doubled in size, use a very sharp knife to cut three or four diagonal slits about a quarter inch deep on the top of each loaf. Bake on the center shelf for eighteen to twenty minutes until the loaves are light brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

NOTES: If you want a crispier crust, you can toss three or four ice cubes into a preheated baking pan on the bottom shelf in the oven when you start baking the baguettes. I sometimes do this when I make Italian Feather Bread, but so far I have been happy with baguettes baked without the ice cubes.