Friday, May 24, 2013

Ridiculously Easy Bread In A Jar

(NOTE: The following post was written over several days, under the influence of increasingly dire sleep deprivation. Kamal is now waking up every 20 to 45 minutes. I think there was a Battlestar Galactica episode where this sort of sleep cycle disruption was used as a weapon by the Cylons against the humans. Kindly keep this in mind while reading this post; if this bread recipe includes phrasing that sounds vaguely punchy, delirious or hostile, don't take it personally. It's just the no-sleep talking.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: I just reread this and it is ridiculous. I will leave it up as a monument to what sleep deprivation does to the brain, but it's a giant pain to use as a recipe. I'll post a straightforward recipe next. This really is very easy, not that you'd know it from all my rambling here.)

As promised, here's the recipe for Ridiculously Easy Bread In A Jar, which is a recipe I adapted from this recipe on Jezebel, which is a recipe I'm pretty sure is adapted from No-Knead Bread. I started making Ridiculously Easy Bread in a Jar because I wasn't able to keep up with even the ease that is No-Knead Bread--basically, planning ahead is awfully hard when you have a baby who is totally not into having a schedule--and so until Ridiculously Easy Bread happened, I wasn't making bread at all. Which meant we were BUYING bread all the time, or worse, getting takeout because we didn't have a basic foundation for sandwiches or our go-to it's-late-and-we-haven't-cooked-anything dinner of eggs-and-toast.

To get your own batch of REBIAJ started, you need:

  • A big jar--something about a half-gallon in size. I use an old Le Parfait 1.5 liter jar with the rubber gasket removed*. You could theoretically also use a tupperware or something, but then you'd have to call this Ridiculously Easy Bread In A Tupperware, which sounds rather less winsome
  • A canning funnel will make things a lot easier, too, as will
  • a longish wooden spoon. And lastly, 
  • an instant-read thermometer helps avoid the guesswork around when to pull the bread out of the oven. We have a ThermaPen that I got Adam for his birthday or Christmas or something one year. It is a little on the pricey side, but we use it constantly for bread, roasts, steak, burgers, canning, candy, even to get precise about the water temperature in coffee and tea preparation: TOTALLY worth it.
The ingredients for the bread are:

  • one and a half cups of warm water. Test it with your finger; it should be nice, soothing, bathwater warm. Too hot and it'll kill the yeast; too cool and the yeast will be sluggish. 
  • a tablespoon of active dry yeast
  • a tablespoon of salt (I use kosher, and technically it measures differently than other salt, but use whatever salt you have on hand. Some people will tell you not to use iodized salt, but for a simple, unfussy bread like this one, it so does not need to be a thing.)
  • two cups of white flour
  • one cup of  whole wheat flour (I like the softer white whole wheat variety, versus the traditional red whole wheat)

Pour the warm water into the jar.

Add the tablespoon of yeast. Stir. Add the tablespoon of salt. Stir. (Small tangent: I believe bread is generally better when you follow a recipe by weight, not by volume. But this is a Ridiculously Easy recipe, so, yeah. A tablespoon of each. It'll work out just great, I promise.)

Let the jar sit and do its little science experiment for 10 to 20 minutes, while you do something else. Do whatever you want. I'm not the boss of you.

When you come back to the jar, it might be super-frothy or there might just be a few little bubbles. Either way, move forward. Using the canning funnel, put one cup of the  flour in the jar, and stir till all the flour is incorporated into the water mixture. Repeat with the other two cups of flour. Stirring after the last cup is tricky in the jar, which is why the longishness of your spoon is important. Take the time and effort to mix until all the flour and water are evenly combined; otherwise, you'll have little floury dry spots in your bread. Which isn't the end of the world, either, so if your arm is really tired or you're running short on time, just do your best. 

Also? Unbleached flour is the way to go here, and in general. There are a very few instances where bleached flour is preferable to the baker, but as a rule of thumb, don't eat bleached things. 

Now just let the jar sit for a while--maybe an hour or so, longer if your kitchen is very cold, shorter if it's very warm. When the dough has reached nearly the top of the jar, give it a firm but loving shove back down into the jar--it will sort of deflate a little bit--close your jar, and stick it in the fridge. Leave it at least overnight, but anywhere up to a couple of weeks.

Now you have a jar of dough that you can do all sorts of fabulous things with. You can pull out a bit and bake it into dinner rolls or hamburger buns, or stretch it out and grill it or pan-cook it to make a nice flatbread. To make the loaf in the picture above, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, greased a loaf pan with coconut oil, took out all the dough in the jar, shaped it into an approximate cylinder shape, placed it in the loaf pan, and baked it for 40 minutes. (Your thermometer should read between 195 and 205 degrees at the center of the loaf when the bread is done.) No fancy shaping, second rising, steam pan in the oven or anything. It's good, serviceable bread, perfectly adequate for sandwiches, excellent for PB&J's. Nothing that's going to win any bake-off prizes, but head and shoulders above commercial sliced-and-bagged bread. Don't buy that stuff, by the way. It's gross. 

Tonight I used the Ridiculously Easy Bread In A Jar dough to make a very satisfying spinach, feta and pine-nut stuffed bread braid. It ended up being kind of a monster--enormous and way overstuffed--but an awfully tasty dinner. I also used cottage cheese, both to bump up the feta volume and because breastfeeding makes me crave protein in the worst way. I topped it with black sesame seeds. Traditional Chinese medicine says black sesame seeds are tonifying to the Kidney qi, which is depleted by childbirth. 

This was a perfect application for REBIAJ (or any good-but-not-mind-blowingly-amazing bread) because the bread doesn't need to be mind-blowingly amazing when it's stuffed with lots of delicious...stuff. 

Making a bread braid is one of those things that ends up looking like it took a lot more work than it actually did. I love things like that. It's easier to do if you look at pictures of how someone else did it, which I didn't take, but you should totally Google a how-to. Otherwise, here's a basic outline:

-Roll your bread dough into a rectangle. If it resists and starts shrinking at the edges while you're trying to roll it out, treat it like a stubborn person you're arguing with who's resisting coming around to your point of view: Walk away for ten minutes or so. Let it be. Take the path of least resistance. When you come back, it/he/she will be a lot easier to work with. Either that or they'll be super-pissed off that you walked away in the middle of the argument. Look, maybe don't take my advice about arguing with people. What am I, a diplomat? A hostage negotiator? But for the bread dough, yeah. Give it some alone time and it'll treat you better.  

-Once you have an approximate rectangle, divide it visually into thirds lengthwise. Cut parallel, diagonal strips to the middle third down the length of the rectangle. That sounds really confusing. Here is where you should just Google "bread braid" and you will see what I mean. 

-Pile your filling into the middle third of your rectangle.

-Tuck the top end of the rectangle over the filling. 

-Now fold a strip from one side over the filling. Then fold a strip from the other side over that strip. Then switch sides and do it again. Do this all the way down. 

-When you get to the bottom, tuck the bottom end over the filling and under your last couple of "braided" strips. Couldn't be easier. Not that you can tell from my bewildering description. Seriously, you guys, Google is your friend. 

The filling here was all guesswork--no measuring, but I know I put in one large yellow onion that I'd sauteed till it was golden brown and a LOT of sauteed spinach, enough to fill a largish salad spinner when it was raw. Also I'd guess about 6 ounces of feta, roughly chopped, maybe 4 ounces of cottage cheese, and for reasons that are unclear to me now, a beaten egg mixed in to the cottage cheese. Next time I make this, I will put in less of everything--it was way overstuffed--no egg, and maybe no cottage cheese. 

I brushed an egg wash (just another beaten egg mixed with some water) over the top, baked it at 450 for about 30 minutes on parchment paper sitting on a preheated pizza stone with a steam pan in the bottom of the oven, pulled it out and let it rest for about 20 minutes, and then dove in because I was starving.

And that's just one of the awesome things you can do with REBIAJ! We've made very good griddled or grilled flatbreads, pretty damn decent hamburger buns, and so-so cinnamon rolls. I imagine it would make an OK focaccia or psuedo-pizza crust in a pinch, even. 

*The reason I use a jar with the gasket removed is that I bought this jar at a garage sale and it didn't come with a gasket. That being said, I think it's actually a good adjustment to make if your jar has a gasket, because often the dough continues rising for a while after I put it in the fridge and I come home to dough squeezing out of the tiny crack between the lid and the jar that the gasket would otherwise seal. If the jar were airtight, I might be worried about the glass cracking or the dough growth being limited. If you're going to use a regular Mason jar with the screw-top lid, I'd suggest screwing the lid on loosely. 

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