A perk of living abroad – you have American friends who are desperate to cling to American traditions and you have British friends who are fascinated by American gatherings that revolve around eating and want to partake. AKA multiple Thanksgiving celebrations and #allofthefood. (Our British friends – “Do you really eat marshmallows on sweet potatoes?!?” My answer: a firm no.) But having multiple Thanksgiving celebrations means having to prepare multiple sets of dishes. One of my go-to items that I offer to bring is homemade bread.
It’s one of the simplest, but most rewarding things to prepare. And I find the whole process meditative. I love the way the dough feels sticky in my hands. I relish watching the yeast bubbles grow as the dough rises. And nothing beats the smell when it’s transforming in the oven. Nor the look of surprise when you tell your friends that your Thanksgiving contribution of bread was baked in your own oven.
I’ve already shared my recipe for sourdough bread baking, but keeping your own starter and the sourdough bread baking process can be time-consuming. That’s why I sometimes refer to a different recipe that calls for traditional yeast – Julia Child’s and Simone Beck’s classic Plain French Bread Recipe. It’s straight forward, and the bread rising process can be built into a weekday routine or made on a lazy weekend. In the end, you’re left with a reliably tasty loaf of bread.
So shock your Thanksgiving guests or hosts, and give this recipe a go! (Protip: it also produces a great loaf to be used for French Toast the weekend after Thanksgiving, or anytime, too!)
Classic White Bread (Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II by Julia Child and Simone Beck)
This recipe, from start to finish, takes approximately 6 to 8 hours. However, at various points throughout the process, it is possible to delay the rise of the dough to fit your schedule.
- 14g (0.5 ounce) dry active yeast or 0.6 ounce cake yeast
- 1/3 cup warm water (not to exceed 100F / 37C)
- 3 1/2 cup (appx 453g or 1lb) all-purpose white flour
- 2 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups tepid luke warm water (appx 70-80F / 20-26C)
- Small mixing bowl
- Small whisk
- Large mixing bowl
- Scale (optional but helpful)
- Measuring spoon
- Measuring cup
- Wooden spoon or spatula
- Pastry scraper (optional)
- Dutch oven or light colored baking sheet
- Sharp knife
- Pour the 1/3 cup warm water into the small mixing bowl (to warm the water, I boil it in the kettle ahead of time and then let it cool off for a few minutes).
- Add the yeast, stirring with the small whisk. Whisk until the yeast is liquefied completely into the water.
- Pour the 3 1/2 cups flour into the large mixing bowl, and add the 2 1/4 tsp salt.
- Add the yeast/water mixture to the flour and salt mixture and stir with the wooden spoon or spatula.
- Add the additional 1 1/4 cups luke warm water and continue to stir.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured kneading surface. (The dough will be very sticky.)
- Allow the dough to rest for a couple of minutes while you wash out the large mixing bowl.
- Use one hand to knead the dough (start by lifting the edge and folding it onto itself) and use the other hand to scrape the dough off of the surface with the pastry scraper.
- Continue to knead for several minutes until the dough starts to feel elastic. The elastic feel means that the gluten molecules are forming. It should eventually have enough body so that you can gather it into a single loaf of dough and work it onto itself. If necessary, add little sprinkles of flour, but be sure to incorporate the flour fully.
- Place the dough back into the large mixing bowl. Cover with a cloth or plastic wrap (if plastic wrap, be careful to keep an eye that the dough doesn’t rise too much and stick to the plastic), and allow it to rise for 3 to 4 hours in a warm room. It should rise to approximately 3-4 times its original size.
- Once the dough has had its first rise, it’s time to deflate it and prepare it for its second rise. Using your spatula, scrape the dough out of the bowl and turn it over onto a lightly floured surface.
- Sprinkle some flour (very lightly!) on top of the dough and rub your hands in the flour.
- Flatten the dough into a rough circular shape to deflate any gas bubbles.
- Lift one side of the dough and fold it onto itself. Repeat twice, so that the dough is folded onto itself to become a small pillow looking mass.
- Return the dough to the large mixing bowl and cover it again. Allow the dough to rise for another 1.5 – 2 hours. It doesn’t need to rise to triple the size again, but its growth should be noticeable and it should be spongy to the touch.
- Once the dough has had its second rise, it’s time to form it into it’s final shape and then give it a final rest it before baking. Scoop the dough up from inside of the large mixing bowl, and turn it over onto the lightly floured surface again. If it is damp, sprinkle it with a very cautious amount of flour.
- To conduct the final knead and form it into its loaf shape for baking, lift one side of the dough and fold it onto itself. Push into the dough with the heel of your hand several times. Then lift another side of the dough and fold it onto itself again, pressing into it with the heel of your hand. Repeat this several times.
- Rotate the dough between the palms of your hands on top of the floured surface, turning it into a large ball.
- Leave the dough on the floured surface and cover it loosely with a cloth, and allow its final rise. This will take approximately 1.5 to 2 hours.
- While the dough is having its final rise, about 30 minutes before you think it’s done rising preheat the oven to 230C (450F).
- If you’re using a Dutch oven to cook the bread (which I recommend if you have one), sprinkle a dash of olive oil on a paper towel and wipe the bottom and inside of the dutch oven with the oil. You can also bake the bread free-form on a non-stick baking sheet, which you can also wipe with a dash of olive oil.
- Once the final rise is complete, turn the dough into your Dutch oven or onto your baking sheet.
- Now comes the part that I am still mastering – slashing the dough. It’s harder than it sounds. Using your sharp knife, make two deliberate slashes in the dough to form a cross on top of it. My knife usually sticks a bit to the dough, so don’t worry if this happens to you.
- If baking in the Dutch oven, cover the oven with its lid and place it in the oven. Bake with the lid on for the first 15 minutes. This allows steam in the oven to help the crust to begin to form. After 15 minutes, turn down the heat to 200C, and remove the lid and continue baking for 15 more minutes (turn the heat down after the first 15 minutes of baking whether you’re baking in a Dutch oven or not). When the crust is golden brown, it’s ready to come out of the oven.
- If baking on a baking sheet, bake the bread for approximately 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
(Julia Child recommends spraying or painting the dough with cold water three times over 3 minute intervals in the beginning of the baking process. While I take her word as gospel, I’ve never bothered with this step since I’m baking in the Dutch oven which seems to produce enough steam and it hasn’t affected my bread.)
Recipe above adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II by Julia Child and Simone Beck