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)
1 package yeast (check the date to be certain it has not or is not close to expired)
1 TBSP honey
1 TBSP milk
½ TBSP vegetable oil
1 ¼ cups very warm tap water
Corn meal for sprinkling on pan
Making the dough
Add all of the dry ingredients to a large bowl or container — make sure it’s big enough so the dough has plenty of room to double. Whisk the dry ingredients together. Add the milk, then oil, then the honey to a 2-cup measure or bowl. (If you do the honey after the oil in the same spoon, it will slide out easily.) Add 1¼ cups very warm tap water and mix well.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix it up vigorously with a sturdy spoon until there are no dry spots. Go ahead, rough up the dough a bit, it likes that and is great for stress release. The dough will look raggy and that's ok, but if it makes you feel better get your hands in there and knead it a minute so it forms a rough ball. Cover the bowl well with plastic wrap and set aside in a draft-free spot to rise at least 4 ½ hours. If you like you could make it before you go to bed and leave it overnight, or make this before you leave the house in the morning and bake it when you get home. My favorite spot to let dough rise is my microwave. I just stow it in there, shut the door and the yeast has all the privacy it needs to get busy.
Forming the loaf and preparing the oven
When the dough has risen to double in size or so, scrape it onto a floured counter. Get your frustrations out and smack it down to release the air in it, then knead it for about a minute. (FYI: kneading is just folding it on itself over and over.) Form the dough into a ball. Sprinkle some cornmeal liberally on a cookie sheet. Place the dough on the sheet and jiggle the pan a little to make sure the dough can move. Cover the dough with a clean towel and let rise another 55-60 minutes.
While the dough is rising, move the top oven rack to the middle and if you have a pizza/baking stone** put it on the rack. Place your broiler pan (or another pan that can take the heat) on the bottom of your oven. Preheat oven to 400°F.
Baking the loaf
Once the dough has risen the second time and the oven is hot and ready, take a serrated knife and quickly cut two parallel slits in the top of the dough, about ¼” inch deep. (If you forget to do this, don’t worry; the bread will taste wonderful just the same.) Slide the dough from the cookie sheet with a quick jerk onto the stone (if using), or just place the sheet into the oven. Quickly toss ¼ cup or so of water into the broiler pan and shut door to create a little steam. (And if you forget to do this too, the bread will still taste wonderful.)
Bake 30-35 minutes until golden brown and when you thump on the bottom of the loaf it sounds hollow. Shut off the oven, but keep the bread in for about 5 minutes more (a trick I picked up watching an early Julia Child episode. It dries out any extra moisture in the center of the loaf.) Remove dough to a rack to cool. DON’T cut into it for at least 20 minutes. Trust me, the bread will taste much better when it’s just warm and not hot. Calories: about 55 per ounce.
- Substitute semolina flour or fine cornmeal for the whole wheat, or you could use all AP flour
- Add in 2 tsp of fennel seeds and ½ cup golden raisins (works nice if you are using semolina flour).
- Add in 1 TBSP finely chopped rosemary and 1 TBSP lemon zest instead of cinnamon and cardamom.
- Add in ½ cup chopped kalamata olives, substitute water for the milk and honey, leave out the spices.
**A Note about Pizza/Baking Stones: Baking stones are great for getting a good crust and providing somewhat even heat in your oven. But that doesn’t mean you have to run out and get one to make this recipe. If you don’t have one, just bake the bread on the cookie sheet.