Sunday, January 2, 2011

Say Yes to Yeast!

Growing up in an Italian family, there was one thing I could always count on: bread would be present at every meal. And because of that, I love it. Which is why I've always been so frustrated by how hard it is to make.

It's not that my family put homemade bread on the table, it's just that I've had some of the best (read: Boudin) and I want to be able to recreate it! So I set out this weekend to conquer my fear of yeast. I've attempted bread-making many times before, but never with the vigor I exhibited this weekend. I was determined to finally get it right.

In homage to my Italian roots, I took on Sicilian pizza crust yesterday and Italian loaves today. I learned a few lessons that are probably worth sharing before I get to the recipes:

1. Read the directions. Very carefully.
2. Have patience. And a lot of it.

As far as I can tell, my biggest obstacle to bread success in the past has been that I rushed through the recipes, anxious to get to the end result. But now I know that taking your time is so worth it.

Working with yeast is tricky, mostly because it's super temperature-sensitive. But recipes don't lie (usually), so following them very closely should yield good results.

In both recipes, I was careful to dissolve my yeast in water between 110 and 115 degrees for at least 5 minutes. I was also careful about my kneading. This seems to be important to creating the right texture or elasticity, so I actually set a timer while I was kneading. No doubt without the timer I would have given up way too soon - kneading bread dough is hard work!

Allowing the bread to rise is also super important, but this is probably where I went wrong most often in the past. Bread dough needs to rise in a warm place, but how do you create an 80-degree environment for your bread to bask in for a few hours? This is especially difficult when it's winter and the thermostat in the house is set at 66. I discovered that heating the oven to a low temperature - about 250 or 300 degrees - will warm the stovetop to just about the perfect temp. I set the bowl on top of the oven and like magic, my dough rose to the occasion! (Just make sure someone doesn't come along and turn the oven off when they discover nothing's inside. Bill almost did that and I almost throttled him.)

Sicilian Pizza Crust
1 packet (1/4 oz.) Active Dry Yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
2 3/4 cups flour, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Stir yeast and water together in a small bowl. Let stands 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together 2.5 cups flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the center and add yeast mixture and olive oil. Stir until dough comes together and forms a ball. Turn out onto a well-floured surface (that's where the extra 1/4 cup flour comes in) and knead for 5 minutes (that's where the kitchen timer comes in). Shape into a disk and place in a large bowl coated lightly with oil (I used cooking spray). Turn disk once and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Allow to rise in a warm place for 2 hours.

Remove dough from bowl and punch down. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Spray a 15x10-inch baking pan (a standard cookie sheet works) with cooking spray. Roll dough into a rectabgle, transfer to pan and press into corners.

Top with desired toppings. (I used homemade marinara, very thinly sliced onions and bell peppers, mushrooms and cheddar and mozzarella.) Bake on the center rack for 18 to 20 minutes. Or, if you have a tempermental oven like mine, check on it after about 12 or 13 minutes. I had at least 5 minutes left on the timer when I pulled my pizza out, and I probably left it in a minute or so too long. The crust should be just golden.

Italian Loaves
2 packages (1/2 oz.) Active Dry Yeast
1/2 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons shortening
1 egg
8 or 9 cups flour, plus extra for kneading

Stir yeast and water together in a small bowl. Let stand 5 minutes.

Combine sugar, salt, shortening, egg and 4 cups flour in a large bowl. Add yeast mixture and beat until smooth. Add remaining 4 or 5 cups flour, one cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. The dough should begin to form a ball. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 6 to 8 minutes (again, set the kitchen timer).

Place dough in a large oiled bowl, turning once to coat. Cover (this time I used a towel instead of plastic wrap because the dough was much bigger and I knew it would be rising over the top of the bowl) and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Punch dough down, remove from bowl and divide in half. Shape into loaves and place each loaf on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Allow loaves to rise for another hour.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 37 to 42 minutes (or 35 minutes in my oven), or until crust is golden. Remove from oven and place on wire racks. Brush tops of loaves with melted butter.

You'll notice that the directions in both of these recipes are essentially the same. They both allow the yeast to activate before it's added to any other ingredients, they both require a good amount of kneading, they both need ample time to rise. It seems to me that yeast is pretty predictable, so the more you work with it, the easier it probably gets.

One last quick note ... I mixed the pizza crust by hand and I used my KitchenAid stand mixer for the Italian loaves. As much as I love my mixer, I think I'll stick to mixing by hand. It's easier to tell when the dough has reached the right consistency.

I was super impressed with the results of both of my recipes, as was my live-in taste-tester, Bill. In fact, after 3 slices of the pizza, he declared we could "sell it out of a truck." And my Italian loaves earned a "beautiful," which is the first time I've ever heard Bill describe food like that.

This is just the beginning of my bread-making. Wait until I try sourdough :) Enjoy!


  1. When's the truck pulling up to the Bay Area?

    My mother once similarly admonished me about dealing with yeast. I concluded that she was in a fugue state when she considered that I've ever have the capacity to even attempt it, but that's beside the point. It IS difficult, for anyone! So the KitchenAid isn't recommended for this? Are all KitchenAids created equal, by the way?

    I wish I could taste these! I'm quite sure I would agree with Bill on this one. How do you say magical in Italian?

  2. I'd say KitchenAids are more or less created equal, but I know there are people who will disagree with me. It worked out fine, but I just figured that bread-making is something people have been doing for CENTURIES ... without a KitchenAid appliance! So why complicate it?

    You're going to have to make a trip out here to be a guest taster :)