Great expectations in baking

Bread: You don't know how it will all turn out, but you follow the recipe and hope for the best.

February 02, 2000|By Janet Hazen | Janet Hazen,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

When I first entered the culinary world, I was greatly intimidated by bread baking. Actually, any recipe that called for yeast was quickly rejected on general principle.

Making bread seemed too technical, exacting and scientific -- not creative and flexible like cooking. And reading recipes in bread books certainly didn't help, because most required six to seven different steps and several days to come up with an edible loaf.

Now, 23 years later, I've overcome my fear of yeast and of accurately measuring the temperature of water. Baking bread doesn't have to be a painfully precise, laborious ordeal. As a matter of fact, it has become a character-building activity: Baking bread increases my patience, helps me to follow directions more carefully and forces me to delay gratification. It also builds hope.

How, might you ask, does baking bread build hope? Cooking allows the chef to taste along the way -- checking, adjusting and correcting. Because you can't taste raw dough, and it must go through a series of chemical reactions, it's impossible to know ahead of time how your finished product will turn out. As the creator, you must rely solely on the recipe and your experience, and hope for the best.

Don't worry, though; the following simple recipes for flatbread don't require a philosophical attitude -- just have fun and expect a great-tasting product. I chose this type of bread because it requires few steps, is easy to make and begs for the addition of tasty flavoring ingredients like nuts, cheese, onions and garlic, olives, spices and herbs. You'll find all the components at any natural-foods market and some upscale grocery stores.

Regardless of the cuisine, you can tailor your flatbread to complement the food, whether it's Greek, Italian, Danish, Latin, African or Indian.

Walnut-Thyme Flatbread

Makes 1 loaf

4 to 4 1/2 cups bread flour plus more, if needed

1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus additional for sprinkling dough

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 1/2 cups water plus more, if needed

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to brush on dough

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

In large bowl, combine flour, yeast, salt and thyme and mix well. In small saucepan, heat water, olive oil and butter to 130 degrees. Add to dry ingredients and mix until smooth dough is formed. If dough is too wet, add a little more flour. If it is too dry, add a little more hot water.

Turn out onto flat surface and knead gently 5 to 7 minutes until dough is soft, elastic and smooth. Lightly grease pie plate or other shallow bowl. Place dough in greased bowl and cover loosely with plastic bag (such as grocery bag) and let rise in warm place (75 to 80 degrees) until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Punch dough down. Knead walnuts into dough, using more flour as needed. Cover loosely and let rest 20 minutes at room temperature. Using hands, spread dough into oval approximately 8 inches by 11 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Brush lightly with olive oil and cover loosely with plastic bag. Let rise in warm place until almost doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Sprinkle dough with salt. Using sharp knife, mark top of dough in crosshatch pattern. Bake at 425 degrees 25 minutes on bottom rack of oven. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and rotate to upper rack. Bake additional 10 minutes until top is toasty brown and bread sounds hollow when bottom is tapped with 2 fingers. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Potato-Onion Flatbread

Makes 1 loaf

4 cups bread flour plus more, if needed

1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast

1/4 cup dried potato flakes (see note)

1/4 cup dried buttermilk powder (see note)

3 tablespoons dried onion flakes (see note)

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus additional for sprinkling on dough

1 cup nonfat milk

1/2 cup water plus more, if needed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg, for wash

In large bowl, combine flour, yeast, potato flakes, buttermilk powder, onion flakes and salt. Mix well.

In small saucepan, heat milk, water and butter to 130 degrees. Add to dry ingredients and mix until smooth dough is formed. If dough is too wet, add a little more flour. If it is too dry, add a little more hot water.

Turn out onto flat surface and knead gently 5 to 7 minutes until dough is soft, elastic and smooth. Lightly grease pie plate or other shallow bowl. Place dough in greased bowl and cover lightly with plastic bag (such as a plastic grocery bag). Let rise in warm place (75 to 80 degrees) until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Punch dough down and knead 2 minutes, using more flour as needed. Cover lightly and let rest 20 minutes at room temperature.

Using hands, spread dough into oval approximately 10 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Brush lightly with olive oil and cover loosely with plastic bag. Let rise in warm place until almost doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Brush dough with beaten egg and sprinkle with salt.

Bake at 425 degrees 10 minutes on bottom rack of oven. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake additional 20 to 25 minutes until top is toasty brown and bread sounds hollow when bottom is tapped with 2 fingers. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Note: You can find dried potato flakes, dried buttermilk powder and dried onion flakes in a natural-foods store or specialty-grocery store.

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