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Classes, books offer help in baking perfect loaf of bread

The holidays are the perfect time to whip up a loaf of crusty, old-world-style bread, and if you're not an experienced bread baker, now is the perfect time to learn.

On Friday, a group from King Arthur Flour Company will be in Lawrenceville offering two free classes in bread baking. And one of the most celebrated books on baking bread, "Artisan Baking" by Atlantan Maggie Glezer, (Artisan, $22.95) was released in paperback last month.

King Arthur Flour representatives travel the country each year to teach people about the science and art of baking bread.

"It's kind of a tradition that has been losing ground. A lot of people don't do from-scratch baking anymore," said King Arthur spokeswoman Allison Rogers. "Our mission is to be an inspiration. We want to spread the joy of baking."

Baking bread yourself is a fun challenge, said Glezer, who started baking at home because she couldn't find quality bread at her local bakeries. The important thing to remember is to keep bread baking fun, and don't get frustrated with inevitable first-time mistakes, Glezer said.

"Everything was a challenge when I first started baking," Glezer said. "I was so bad at it, I messed up everything."

But after a few professional classes and lots of experimentation, Glezer was on her way to successful baking. A few of the simple joys that accompany the process - her kids love to help out and the baking bread makes her house smell great - encouraged her to keep working on it.

Glezer recommends beginners stick with recipes for breads they really enjoy, whether that's cinnamon rolls or plain sandwich bread.

"Whatever you really love, that's what will give you the motivation for continuing," Glezer said.

Also, she said an easy trick for beginners is to use instant yeast - sold at the store as either rapid rise, quick rise or bread machine yeast - rather than active dry yeast. Rather than dissolving the yeast in water, bakers can just throw it directly into the dough. It takes out an extra step and works just as well, if not better, than active dry.

For more tips and tricks, don't miss King Arthur Flour's two, two-hour classes in Lawrenceville. No registration is necessary, and each class can accommodate about 300 people. The first, running from 1 to 3 p.m., will cover the basics of baking sweet breads and whole grains, and the second, from 7 to 9 p.m., will explore artisan breads.

During the classes, instructor Carolyn Hack will offer demonstrations on everything from how to properly measure flour to how to get a crunchier crust.

"We're trying to teach the little simple things. If you're not having success with baking, we'll give you some tips to make it better," Rogers said.

The group will not actually bake bread during the classes, but will bring bread samples along and demonstrate techniques for measuring, mixing, kneading and shaping bread. Hack will start with a basic dough for both sweet and artisan breads then offers different techniques for turning them into recipes such as cinnamon swirl loaf, banana bread and rustic country bread.

Starter:

1 cup (8 ounces) cool water

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

A pinch of instant or active dry yeast

Dough:

1 cup (8 ounces) cool water

11⁄2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast

11⁄2 teaspoons salt

3 to 31⁄2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Combine the starter ingredients and mix until well blended. Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight. The starter should dome slightly on top and become aerated and spongy. It will look wet, with a bubbly surface laced with creases.

In a large bowl, combine the risen starter, water, salt, yeast and enough flour to make a soft, wet dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until dough becomes smooth but slightly tacky. Avoid adding too much flour. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a clean towel and let rise 45 minutes.

To fold dough, lightly dust the dough and work surface with flour. Using a dough scraper, invert dough onto the work surface. Gently stretch and pat the dough flat, then fold the dough into thirds, like a you would a letter. Turn dough 90 degrees and repeat the folds. Pick up the folded package of dough, invert it and place gently back into the bowl. The dough will be noticeably tighter. Cover with plastic wrap and a clean towel and let rise 45 minutes. Fold the dough again, cover and let rise for another 45 minutes.

Gently invert the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using a bench knife, divide dough in half and gently preshape into rounds by drawing the edges together so that one side becomes the smooth outer surface, while the other side of the ball has all the edges drawn together. Cover and let rest on a lightly floured surface for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven, and baking stone if you're using one, to 500 F. Place an empty cast iron skillet on the bottom rack. Shape the dough as desired and set on a linen cloth or tightly woven kitchen cloth. Cover and let rise until dough is not quite doubled in bulk, 40 to 45 minutes. Just before baking, gently slash the loaves. Slide them onto the baking stone, fill the oven with steam by pouring 1⁄2 cup of boiling water into the empty skillet, spray a mist of water into the oven and close the door. Bake for 5 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 475 F, and bake until done, about 25 minutes. Internal temperature should be 205 F. Let bread cool on a rack.

Makes 2 to 3 loaves