Having fully honed the arts of vodka infusing and cheese making, I’ve set my sights on the next step of my culinary journey. Infusing vodka was like going to college. Making cheese was like getting married. Baking bread… now this was going to be the BIG step – I was going to have a bun in my oven.
And indeed, since wetting my feet in the bread baking field, I have experienced a set of emotions I can only imagine as being similar to the journey of parenthood – nicely and neatly condensed into one long day and one tight little bread pan.
Baking bread is an exercise in patience and anxiety-management. As someone who is certainly not ready to have children, the experience of panification (as the French would say) makes me think I may never be cut out for it. If making a single loaf of bread leaves me feeling exhausted, worried, and mildly miffed, Lord knows what having to care for an actual child would do to me.
Still, it’s been insightful.
I figured there are few things on this earth more basic than making a loaf of bread. People have been doing it for thousands of years. Many a woman in my family has baked bread successfully before me, so it should be pretty straightforward and intuitive, right?
But immediately from conception I’m overwhelmed with questions and fears. Instant yeast, active dry yeast, natural yeast – which one is best for my bread? Whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, or bread flour? Do I use an electric mixer, or is that too impersonal? Every decision suddenly carries the weight of the world. Trying to grasp some of the knowledge of those who have baked bread before me, I read books and search the internet for tried and true answers to these questions.
Finally I decide to stick with the basics – a family recipe. If all the women in my family can churn out a decent loaf of bread, so can I. All-purpose flour, active dry yeast, and I’m going to do this by hand because I want to be the kind of baker that gets close and personal; I want to have a connection to the bread and not let something else do all the work for me.
As I start the process of incorporating all the ingredients, I find myself repeatedly asking “is this normal?” Then the anxiety creeps in. Is my dough ball too moist? Is it too dry? Did I knead it enough? Did I knead it too much? Is the yeast working in there? I fret and fret and knead and knead. I’m kneading so hard and for so long that my hands are burning and my breathing is labored, but finally, miraculously, I find the strength to do one more quarter turn and one more giant push with my palm… and everything comes together and it looks alright – the bread equivalent of 10 fingers and 10 toes. Nothing is glaringly amiss; it’s (hopefully) alive; I love it immediately and assign all sorts of hopes for it for the future. But I’m tired and it needs rest, and so we begin the first rising.
I put the dough in a clear bowl (so I can see everything) and cover it gently with plastic wrap so that nothing icky can sneak in. Over the next 1-3 hours I try to resist the urge to hover over the bowl or lift the plastic wrap to touch the dough. I usually don’t succeed. I sequester myself in the other room for as long as I can before checking on it and fret some more in the meantime. “Look how big you’re getting,” I’ll remark to it every 10 minutes or so while secretly worrying whether it actually is growing, and how much longer it needs to stay there. I touch it some more and then worry that my touch somehow did some damage.
After a few hours of staring nervously at the dough, I buck up and make the judgment call that it’s ready for some more kneading. I take the dough out of its bowl and admire it for a long time. “You look just like my aunt’s dough,” I’ll tell it while gently kneading it. “You’re going to be perfect, I just know it.” As I massage my pudgy little dough ball, I contemplate what shape I want it to take. A baguette? Nah, too snobbish. A sandwich loaf? No no, too blah. I contemplate forming it into something unique, like a sunflower or panda, but I do want my bread to fit in.
Finally I decide I’d like it to be a nice, big boule stuffed with spinach and mozzarella; beautiful and perfectly round on the outside, but full of flavor and excitement on the inside. As I start to form it, the bread sometimes refuses to cooperate. It won’t stretch, it won’t stick when I fold in the other ingredients, but still I push on. No one said this would be easy. We argue a bit, but finally the dough settles and realizes what I’m doing is good for it. I tuck it in for another rest, lovingly folding the ends of a dish towel under its newly formed shape. This time I give it more space, but still I check on it, peek at it lovingly, sing hushed lullabyes to it under my breath.
Before I know it, the second rising is over and it’s time for the final stage. Time for me to let go and let the oven work its ways with my precious loaf. I give it a pep talk as the oven warms up for its arrival. “You can do this; the oven may make you crispy and hard on the outside… that’s a good thing, just don’t let it make you tough on the inside too. And if you ever need me, please let me know. I don’t want to have to hear from the smoke alarm that you’re going down in flames.”
I try not to be emotional as I slip it into the oven. I wish it luck, close the door, say a few Hail Marys and let go. A few minutes go by and I haven’t heard much from my bread. I know it probably doesn’t need me right now, so I wait a few more. As time goes on, I start to worry and decide to just check on it from the oven window. Peering in…ugh, I can’t see with all the steam. Let me open the oven door just a crack, I’m sure it’s doing fine, but… maybe it needs more basting or more spraying. I open the oven and steam comes pouring out. “Stooooooooop,” the bread loaf seems to scream to me, “close the door, I’m cooking in here!” OK, OK, I’ll just give you a few sprays with the water bottle and be out of your way! Spritz Spritz. Alright, alright, I’m leaving… you let me know when you need anything.
I close the door and wait and pace. It’s out of my hands now, I did the best I could. Over the next half hour, I try to help out only when I feel I’m needed. A few sprays here and there, I help it move from the hot oven to somewhere it can cool down and settle, I let the natural progression of things shape its flavors. Finally, all has calmed down; I feel older and wiser, and I look at the bread with educated eyes. My boule is not too shabby on the outside and beautiful on the inside, and I know many people will be dying to get their mouths around it. “I did OK,” I think to myself.
“We did OK.”
Spinach Mozzarella Stuffed Bread
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more as needed
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1 cup or more water
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 pound frozen spinach
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl and mix well. Add the water a little at a time and knead with hands and until the dough forms a ball, adding a tablespoon more water at a time until it becomes smooth; if the dough begins sticking to the side of the bowl, you’ve added too much water. No harm done: add 1/4 cup or so of flour and keep going. You’re looking for a moist, slightly shaggy but well-defined ball. If the dough is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Turn the dough ball onto a well-floured surface and knead for a few minutes.
- Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and let sit for at least an hour at room temperature.
- While the dough rises, heat the frozen spinach in a large saucepan with the olive oil and garlic until warm.
- When the hour is up, use a small strainer or your fingers to dust a little flour onto a counter or tabletop. Using your hands, push the dough into the shape of a large rectangle. Brush with olive oil and add a thin layer of the spinach mixture. Top with 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Fold the right side of the dough into the middle and fold the left side on top of that (making a tri-fold, like you would fold a letter to fit into an envelope). Heat the oven to 400°F while you let the bread rise (covered with a towel) for another hour or two.
- When you are ready to bake, slash the top of the loaf once or twice with a razor blade or sharp knife. If the dough has risen on a cloth, slide or turn it onto floured baking sheets or gently move it onto a lightly floured peel, plank of wood, or flexible cutting board, then slide the bread directly onto a pizza stone. Or you can bake on lightly oiled baking sheets. Turn the heat down to 375°F.
- Bake until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature of the bread is at least 210°F (it can be lower if you plan to reheat the bread later) or the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Remove, spray with a bit of water if you would like a shinier crust, and cool on a wire rack.