THERE are few things as deeply satisfying as pulling a loaf of freshly baked bread out of the oven. The profound earthy smell of grain and yeast, the rush of Promethean heat, the resplendent burnished crust -- it feels as if the ancient hearth is still alive and well in your 21st century kitchen. Or, if not the primordial fireside, maybe an early-morning Parisian boulangerie.
But unlike making croissants at dawn, baking your own bread is really quite easy. And the rewards are stunning: Hot, crusty loaves that you pull out of your oven just can't be replicated any other way, even if you happen to have a good corner bakery close by.
This recipe is a simple one. It's what I make when I want bread I can knock together quickly and vary at will -- I might make a plain \o7batard\f7, rosemary baguettes, a dozen currant rolls -- the possibilities are endless. No overnight rising, no three-day \o7levain\f7, no sourdough experiments: I save those for my long weekend homages to Nancy Silverton. This basic bread is so easy that you won't even need the recipe after you make it a few times. Once you get the simple chemistry, it becomes second nature.
Start early in the morning for a late-morning baguette, maybe, or begin mid-afternoon if you want warm bread for dinner.
In a large bowl, mix warm water, dry yeast, a little sugar and a cup of flour. Let it sit for 10 minutes to make sure the yeast activates. (Though it's rare for yeast not to activate, there's nothing quite so tedious as watching a ball of dough remain inert for hours.)
After the yeast mixture begins to bubble, add your ingredients. The olive oil gives a little flavor dimension, plus a more pliant dough -- and one that won't dry out quite so quickly as a dough made without any fat. Wheat germ adds depth of flavor and the nutrients that you would ordinarily get with whole wheat flour -- which this recipe doesn't call for. That's because dough made with unbleached all-purpose flour is lighter and more elastic than a whole wheat dough, and therefore easier to work with.
After you've mixed the dough for a few minutes to incorporate the ingredients -- you can do this with a spoon or spatula, or just use your hands -- add the salt. (Salt slows down fermentation and, added directly to yeast, can kill it.) You can also add flavorings such as herbs, roasted garlic or a sprinkle of fennel seeds and lemon peel at this point, if you want to jazz it up.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it's light and elastic. And yes, you can do this in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. But kneading dough by hand is a remarkably therapeutic experience. It gives you time to reflect on your day, on the bread you're making and why you're making it in the first place. There's also a Zen to it which is strangely, beautifully pleasurable.
You'll need to add flour to your work surface as you knead, but resist the temptation to add it too fast. Incorporate it in increments of about a tablespoon -- or roughly what you can pick up with your fingertips. Decrease the amount you add as you get closer to the right texture, until you're just lightly dusting the surface. (Like salt in food, it's easier to put more in than take it out.) Once it's elastic and pliant, test the dough to see if it's ready. Poke a flour-coated finger in it -- if the dough bounces back, it's done. Or try the "windowpane" method. Stretch a piece of dough between your fingers: If it tears easily, knead it some more.
Once you're done kneading, form the dough into a ball and let it rise, covered. You can do this in your oven if your oven has a "proof" setting or can be reliably set very low (ideal proofing temperature is about 80 degrees), or on a countertop if your kitchen is warm. Go mow the lawn, read the paper, take a nap and dream Proustian bakery dreams.
This first rise is the most important, when much of the flavor and texture develops; it will take about an hour and a half -- until the dough has about doubled in size. The time required can vary depending on the temperature and your method of achieving it. Julia Child, for example, used to let hers rise in the back of her car while she went on errands.
After the first rise, punch down the dough and let it rise again, though for a shorter duration. Why a second rise? Because each rise further develops the complexity of the dough -- and thus the flavor and texture of your finished loaf of bread.
Next, form your dough into the shapes you want. Simplest is a \o7batard\f7, which is a long free-form loaf that rises simply on a baking sheet without any special pans. Or you could fashion a baguette, which both proofs and bakes in a perforated metal baguette pan.