Chemistry was the course most avoided by the majority of my high school graduating class. If you were brave enough to register for it, you instantly qualified as among the brainiacs of my peer group.
Playing it safe, I chose a class blending all the sciences in two semesters, giving me the best chance to maintain my GPA and qualifying for my college of choice.
Fast-forward five years, and I found myself out of college, working and enjoying the skills of homemaking as a new bride. One of the first items on my eager-to-try list was the pinnacle of all basic cooking, the yeast bread.
I had occasionally seen my mother pull fresh loaves from our oven, but we were raised in the era of newfangled sliced bread. Supermarkets had all the time-saving varieties for a busy housewife, so why fuss with baking bread when you could pick up a loaf for 39 cents?
I had heard bread-making was easy, but I’d heard horror stories, too. Which was it?
What I did know is that fresh-baked bread made a home smell heavenly. Plus, I wanted to impress my husband with my baking skills. So I plunged in. I found a basic recipe and got to work.
The horror stories proved to be true, at least in my case. I couldn’t get that first brick of bread into the garbage fast enough. I made several more attempts but gradually resolved that Mr. Safeway would be my go-to baker for some time. It was another three years before I pulled out the yeast packets and tried again.
My husband changed jobs in the interim, and with that change came a new boss. With the new boss was his lovely wife, who also happened to be a talented cook. At a social event one evening, I confided in her about my bread-baking failures. She asked a few questions, then solved the problem in one simple phrase: “Shannon, you’re killing the yeast.”
Those five words solved my bread-making woes. There it was. I was a yeast murderess.
Thirty years have passed. I am no longer afraid of chemistry because I understand its role when it comes to baking. I’ve learned to not even use warm water in baking bread.
Yeast, a single living cell of fungus, can release carbon dioxide when combined with sugar and flour just as easily in cool water as it can in warm. So avoid your own definition of “warm water” when it comes to most yeast bread recipes. What’s warm to you likely will kill the yeast.
This recipe begins in a breadmaker, so you’ll save time. Set your batch on the “dough cycle.” When the cycle is complete, shape dough on a floured surface to rise, then bake as directed in your oven.
It’s simple chemistry. Really.
I should have followed my brainiac friends into chemistry class.
Raised Ciabatta Bread in a Breadmaker
1½ cups water (straight out of the tap)
1 teaspoon salt (fine, kosher if possible)
1 generous tablespoon of sugar
1 generous tablespoon of olive oil
3¼ cups good bread flour
1½ teaspoons of yeast
1 tablespoon of dried instant potato flakes
In the order above, place all ingredients, except for the instant potato flakes, into your bread machine. Set on dough cycle (about 90 minutes of whirling. Times vary with individual breadmakers). After the dough has begun to churn, add the dried potato flakes, close the lid and let the machine work its magic.
Altitude plays a factor. The dough should make a sticky ball, pulling away from the sides in the process, turning into a smooth ball of dough as it mixes. You may need to add a few drops of water or a little more flour, depending on your location.
When the cycle is complete, place dough onto a lightly floured surface. Shape into one long loaf or two ovals, then let dough rest 20 minutes.
Lightly flour or use parchment-lined baking sheets. With floured hands transfer the rested dough onto the baking sheets. Dimple the top of the dough with your fingers, poking to get any air bubbles to pop. Quickly reshape into oval(s) and let rise about an hour longer.
Cook in preheated oven at 425 degrees, on mid-top rack, 21-24 minutes.
This is a soft bread, best portioned out by pulling apart with your fingers and not cutting with a knife.
Tips from my kitchen: Store unopened yeast tightly closed, in an airless zip seal bag. Place in refrigerator for longer shelf life.
Shannon M. Smurthwaite is a Southern California native. The mother of four children, she and her husband, Donald, reside in Meridian, Idaho. Contact her at www.myitalianmama.com or firstname.lastname@example.org