Bread of the Month: Rounding out a country loaf

I baked bread today. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Some of you did way more, I’m sure, and I commend you. But my country loaf was a commitment of four hours of work (and wait) or more, begun before it was light.

You have to resign to this commitment to make bread, and know that the day will be about that, and that’s fine. If you’re in a hurry or feel it will keep you trapped or restricted or anxious, or you don’t like mess, then it might not be for you. I had settled my mind and looked forward to a day of one of the simplest and oldest traditions, and knew that not much more than a loaf of bread (along with dirty bowls and flour everywhere) would be the end result of the hours, and that was OK. It was worth it.

I knew I needed to begin my process in the early morning, activating a yeasty sponge — an intriguing batter base for the bread that after an hour in a covered bowl, bubbled with life most delightfully. It was then making and kneading a dough — by mixer and by hand — then giving that dough a rise in a bowl while I walked in the rain. As I walked, I thought about the rain as it soaked me and glad the rain was still coming and glad for a rainy day to have for bread-baking. I thought about the bread and how its crust would be made crustier by a light layer of water on the dough’s surface.

Back to the kitchen, I pondered a blooming, lively dough that was warm and breathing with the air that living dough has. Then on to shaping its soft fleshiness into a simple round.

Another hour of rising, then spritzing (with water), sprinkling (with flour) and slashing (with a serrated knife). Then baking and the inevitable trips I made in and out of the house, just so I could be met with the smell of baking bread.

A simple country loaf…it came out a huge round golden drum that I thumped for doneness, with those slashed scars on top, and a crispy crust created with spritzing water and a steaming pan during the baking. A simple country loaf, I found the recipe marked in “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook,” with a small sheet of note paper from several years ago that listed all the breads I wanted to make, many of them completed by now for this blog. And there it was on the list — Country Loaf, its title made it seem humble, but it was not. It conjured images of thick rough sandwiches of ham and cheese or big pots of stew for dunking. It rounded out an array of 70-some different breads (according to my rough calculations) that I had made for this blog. It was created with a mere few ingredients, but it became something big. Its long slices, spread with butter, were both tender and crusty, as they were supposed to be, and it was enough. But I had other plans for it, too.

Once all was done, I napped in satisfaction, because AWS believes in naps (and rainy days and bread-baking) and is not ashamed to admit she takes them.

Country Loaf
From “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook” (2000)
Makes 1 large loaf

5 to 5 1/2 cups bread flour

1 teaspoon sugar

1 package regular or quick active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

2 cups very warm water (120° to 130°)

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

2 teaspoons salt

Mix 2 cups of the flour, the sugar and yeast in large bowl. Add warm water. Beat with wire whisk or electric mixer on low speed 1 minute, scraping bowl frequently.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand about 1 hour until bubbly.

Stir in oil and salt. Stir in enough remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft, smooth dough forms.
Place dough on lightly floured surface. Knead about 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking, until dough is smooth and springy.

Place dough in large bowl greased with shortening, turning dough to grease all sides.

Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place about 1 hour or until double. Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.

Grease uninsulated cookie sheet with shortening. Place dough on lightly floured surface. Gently shape into an even, round ball, without releasing all of the bubbles in the dough.

Stretch sides of dough downward to make a smooth top. Place loaf with smooth side up on cookie sheet. Spray loaf with cool water. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place 45 to 60 minutes or until almost double.

Place square pan, 8x8x2 or 9x9x2 inches, on bottom rack of oven; add hot water to pan until about 1/2 inch from the top. Heat oven to 425°.

Spray loaf with cool water; sprinkle lightly with flour. Carefully cut three 1/4-inch- deep slashes on top of loaf with sharp serrated knife.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until loaf is deep golden brown with crisp crust and sounds hollow when tapped.

Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack; cool.

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