Winter weather means "soup season". It just does. I mean, if you think about it, we have seasonal clothes, seasonal activities, seasonal holidays, so it makes sense that we would have seasonal foods too. Soups are the perfect food for cold weather season. They warm and fill our bellies and make us feel all cozy and comforted. Oh, and they are easy (huge bonus!). The perfect companion to soup is bread! Soft and buttery, or chewy and crusty - Muffins, rolls, loaves. It doesn't matter, and the options are endless. At the top of the list and the first choice for many is French bread. Its neutral enough to pair with most soups and universally loved. This recipe is fast, and easy enough that a first-time bread maker will score a "W" in the win column and be enjoying warm, chewy French bread with their soup before you can say "Jack Frost!".
2 CUPS WARM WATER (100°)
1 TABLESPOON ACTIVE DRY YEAST
1 TABLESPOON SUGAR
1 TABLESPOON KOSHER SALT + SOME FOR SPRINKLING ON TOP AFTER BAKING
4 1/2 - 6 CUPS FLOUR
BUTTER OR OLIVE OIL TO GREASE THE BOWL
Place warm water in a small bowl and whisk in the yeast and sugar. Let sit until the yeast begins to multiply and the mixture becomes foamy. (If the yeast doesn't foam up and start to expand within 10 minutes, the yeast is no longer viable and you should start over with new yeast).
Place 2 cups of flour and the salt in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast mixture and stir with a wooden spoon or a Danish dough hook to combine. Continue to add flour 1/2 c. at a time until the mixture becomes so stiff that you can't stir it any more. Turn dough out onto a floured pastry cloth (see Heirloom Kitchen Co's "Original Pastry Cloth") or a floured surface. Begin to knead the dough, slowly adding flour 1/2 c. at a time until the mixture becomes a smooth, yet still moist dough. (Take your time so you don't add too much! See video below) This may take some time if you are doing this by hand but stick with it. It's worth it and it's important for gluten development. (Gluten forms when flour is hydrated, which happens during kneading, and also when certain proteins slide past each other so that vital chemical bonding can occur in forming gluten strands, which also happens durning kneading). If using a stand mixer or a Bosch, using a dough hook can accomplish this kneading in about 3-5 minutes, but kneading by hand for a few minutes at the end is necessary to align gluten strands. (See Kneading technique video below)
Place the dough into a greased, medium sized bowl and turn the dough over so that the top is greased. Cover and let rise in a place that is about 75-80°.
The dough is done proofing and ready to shape when a gentle poke leaves an imprint which slowly bounces back and mostly disappear in a few seconds. Divide the dough in two, setting one half aside. Begin shaping by folding the top towards you to the middle, then each side to the middle and last fold the bottom up. You will have an envelop shape, which you will then fold in half. Seal the the edges (See video on shaping the loaf). Using your hands, gently roll the dough back and forth - like making a worm with Play-dooh - to an elongated loaf form. Finally, place your hand along the long edge and roll the dough towards you tightening the form and creating tension on the top of the loaf. (See video on "Tightening" the loaf). Repeat with other half of dough and place loaves on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Cover with a towel and allow it to complete its final proof, 30-45 minutes. Preheat your oven to 400° so it will be hot when the dough is ready.
You will know when it's time to bake your loaves when they have almost doubled in size and when you poke them with your finger they spring back a little (if there is no spring, you may have waited too long and they are over-proofed). "Score" the top of the loaves with a sharp knife as desired. This is to create an attractive place for the the loaves to expand, rather than splitting the top of the loaf randomly. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until they are are golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 180°. Yep, you can tell if bread is done by taking its temperature. Remove from oven, baste with butter and sprinkle with flaky salt.
Yeast proofing (process sped up by time-lapse photography)
Beginning to mix dough by hand
Kneading and placing in bowl
Shaping the loaf
Tightening the loaf top
Testing to see if it's done
Usually you don't cut bread while it's hot, but how can you resist this?!!