The phrase “comfort food” gets tossed around a lot these days. I suppose that’s because in the often-discomforting world we live in, we are all seeking some sort of escape, someone or failing that something to provide a little comfort. Hence the preponderance of menus, books, articles and restaurants featuring comfort food. Truth is, for a “foodie” (a term, like "comfort food" I am tiring of quickly), all food is comfort food. We are not the “food is fuel” crowd. We are the ones who wake up with thoughts of what’s for breakfast. We seek out food labeled “comfort” too, but what exactly that is varies as much as the one searching. The food one looks to for consolation is very subjective. To generalize it to a specific menu, though happening more and more these days, seems awfully silly to me. I mean, one gal’s mashed potatoes and meatloaf is another’s aloo gobi or pad thai or Cincinnati chili, right? The point is the comfort, something that the moment it passes your lips makes you feel instantly better, emotionally warmed, and cozy.
There are many items on my personal cozy food list, but the number one spot is actually the simplest. It’s toast. Truly. I absolutely love toast. A piece of crispy warm bread spread with butter, honey, jam, a soft ripe cheese, or even just sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar is my absolute favorite comfort food. Sometimes all it takes is a whiff of that epicurean cure to salve the wounds of a crappy, crazy day. Pretty funny for a person who spends a good deal of her time thinking of, playing with and writing about food, huh? A simple piece of good bread (occasionally so-so bread), toasted golden and crispy and I'm a happy gal. There’s just something about it that says comfort to me. I have no idea how it started, but I think I’ve always felt this way. Maybe it's because tea and toast was the meal served when I was little and not feeling well. Maybe it’s the wonderful smell, followed by the crunch and just a little warm tenderness underneath that does the trick.
Whatever it is, it works. I think someone should come up with scented candles that smell of toast. Or pump toasty smells through the air vents in offices. Just imagine that stress-filled office when the scent wafts down, and head after head pops up from screen and keyboard, sniffs, and smiles. I bet it would do wonders for morale. So the next day you come home in a swirl of stress, toss a slice or two in the toaster. I guarantee in a few minutes you’ll be wrapped in culinary comfort, as cozy as toast.
This week’s recipe is for homemade bread. O.K., before you stop reading, (“yeast, and KNEADING…yeah, I think not…”), let me reassure you that baking bread is not as scary as it might seem. Over the last few years several recipes have come out for various “no knead,” long-proofed breads. Instead of huffing and puffing kneading dough into submission, just mix the ingredients together, stash them in a cozy spot, and after several hours the yeast get their groove on with nary a finger raised by you to pummel them into action. I’ve been playing with this technique and recipes for a while now, and think I’ve come up with one that will work every time. The basic recipe (just flour, water, yeast and salt) is also really easy to adapt to different kinds of flour and flavorings. It’s not entirely no-knead, but you need only rough it up about a minute or two. Therefore I call it my Nearly Knead-Free Bread. Not only does it taste great, but the air fills with a subtle scent of cinnamon and cardamom when it toasts. And you can’t get cozier than that.
Nearly Knead-Free Bread
Makes one 1 ½ lb loaf
Don’t be scared off by the length of this recipe. There are really only three steps – make the dough, form into a loaf, and bake. In between the steps you have nothing to do but think about how good it’s going to taste. The reason I’ve done a lot of explaining below is so you get familiar with the technique.
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon (optional)
¼ tsp cardamom (optional)